This was a man with a particular understanding of what a utopia might look like, who did not believe, after all, in the compatibility of freedom and democracy. The New Zealand Company was a private firm founded by a convicted English child kidnapper named Edward Gibbon Wakefield, with the aim of attracting wealthy investors with an abundant supply of inexpensive labour — migrant workers who could not themselves afford to buy land in the new colony, but who would travel there in the hope of eventually saving enough wages to buy in.
Why Silicon Valley billionaires are prepping for the apocalypse in New Zealand
The company embarked on a series of expeditions in the s and 30s; it was only when the firm started drawing up plans to formally colonise New Zealand, and to set up a government of its own devising, that the British colonial office advised the crown to take steps to establish a formal colony. We as indigenous people have a very strong sense of intergenerational identity and collectivity. Whereas these people, who are sort of the contemporary iteration of the coloniser, are coming from an ideology of rampant individualism, rampant capitalism.
New Zealanders tend to be more flattered than troubled by the interest of Silicon Valley tech gurus in their country. Among the leftwing Kiwis I spoke with, there had been a kindling of cautious optimism, sparked by the recent surprise election of a new Labour-led coalition government, under the leadership of the year-old Jacinda Ardern , whose youth and apparent idealism suggested a move away from neoliberal orthodoxy. During the election, foreign ownership of land had been a major talking point, though it focused less on the wealthy apocalypse-preppers of Silicon Valley than the perception that overseas property speculators were driving up the cost of houses in Auckland.
The incoming government had committed to tightening regulations around land purchases by foreign investors. During my time in New Zealand, Ardern was everywhere: in the papers, on television, in every other conversation. She was talking on her phone, but looked towards us and waved at Byrt, smiling broadly in happy recognition. He was driving the rental car, allowing me to fully devote my resources to the ongoing cultivation of aesthetic rapture mountains, lakes, so forth.
We were on our way to see for ourselves the part of New Zealand, on the shore of Lake Wanaka in the South Island, that Thiel had bought for purposes of post-collapse survival. We talked about the trip as though it were a gesture of protest, but it felt like a kind of perverse pilgrimage.
It coloured his perception of reality.
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He admitted, for instance, to a strange aesthetic pathology whereby he encountered, in the alpine grandeur of the South Island, not the sublime beauty of his own home country, but rather what he imagined Thiel seeing in the place: Middle-earth. Matt Nippert, the New Zealand Herald journalist who had broken the citizenship story earlier that year, told me he was certain that Thiel had bought the property for apocalypse-contingency purposes.
But none of this had amounted to much, Nippert said, and he was convinced it had only ever been a feint to get him in the door as a citizen. A well known and well connected professional in Queenstown, he agreed to speak anonymously for fear of making himself unpopular among local business leaders and friends in the tourism trade. He had been concerned for a while now about the effects on the area of wealthy foreigners buying up huge tracts of land. Another couple he knew of, a pair of bitcoin billionaires, had bought a large lakeside estate on which they were constructing a gigantic bunker.
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From the point of view of the modern apocalypticist, the whole appeal of the country — its remoteness and stability, its abundant clean water, its vast and lovely reaches of unpeopled land — was that it was itself a kind of reinforced geopolitical shelter, way down there at the bottom of the world. The people I spoke to in the property business were keen to portray New Zealand as a kind of utopian sanctuary, but to give as little oxygen as possible to the related narrative around the country as an apocalyptic bolthole for the international elite.
He himself had sold land to one very wealthy American client who had called him on the night of the presidential election. He wanted to secure something right away. Showing me around the high-end beachfront properties he represented about an hour or so north of Auckland, another luxury property specialist named Jim Rohrstaff — a Californian transplant who specialised in selling to the international market — likewise told me that although quite a few of his major clients were Silicon Valley types, the end of the world tended not to be a particular factor in their purchasing decisions.
What they see when they come here is utopia. In one sense, I knew what he meant by this. He meant excellent wine. He meant world-class golf. He meant agreeable climate, endless white sand beaches that scarcely aroused the suspicion of the existence of other human beings.
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But having lately spoken to Khylee Quince about the historical resonances of the concept of utopia, I wondered what else he might mean, and whether he intended to mean it or not. I n Queenstown, before we set out to find the former sheep station Thiel had bought, we went to look for the house he owned in the town itself. This place, we speculated, must have been purchased as a kind of apocalyptic pied-a-terre: somewhere he could base himself, maybe, while whatever construction he had planned for the sheep station was underway.
It looked modestly ostentatious, if such a thing was possible; the front of the building was one giant window, gazing out blankly over the town and the lake below. There was some construction going on in the place. I wandered up the drive and asked the builders if they knew who their client was. They were just doing some renovation on contract. Nothing sinister, just wiring. The next day, we made our way to Lake Wanaka, where the larger rural property was located. We rented bikes in the town, and followed the trail around the southern shore of the lake.
I asked Anthony whether he thought the water was safe to drink, and he said he was sure of it, given that its purity and its plenty was a major reason a billionaire hedging against the collapse of civilisation would want to buy land there in the first place. We scrabbled up the stony flank of a hill and sat for a while looking out over the calm surface of the lake to the distant snowy peaks, and over the green and undulating fields unfurling into the western distance, all of it the legal possession of a man who had designs on owning a country, who believed that freedom was incompatible with democracy.
Later, we made our way to the far side of the property, bordering the road, where we saw the only actual structure on the entire property: a hay barn. It is the opinion of this reporter that Thiel himself had no hand in its construction. W e had made it to the centre of the labyrinth, but it was elsewhere in the end that the monster materialised.
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The older man was doughier and less healthy-looking than he appeared in photographs, Harris told me, but he had little doubt as to his identity. Harris, who was aware that Peter Thiel had not been seen in New Zealand since , asked the man whether he was who he thought he was; the man smirked and, without raising his eyes from the board game toward Harris, replied that a lot of people had been asking him just that question.
He asked Harris if he knew the artist, and Harris said that he did, that he himself was in a fact a writer whose work had formed part of the conceptual framework for the show. Of the sheer improbability of these two men— one for whom New Zealand was a means of shoring up his wealth and power in a coming civilisational collapse, one for whom it was home, a source of hope for a more equal and democratic society — just happening to cross paths at an art exhibition loosely structured around the binary opposition of their political views no mention was made, and they went their separate ways.
Thiel left his contact details with the gallery, suggesting that Denny get in touch. Byrt, the more straightforwardly political in his antagonism toward Thiel and what he represented, was bewildered by this unexpected turn of events, though strangely thrilled by it, too. For my part, this came as a disorienting rug-pull ending — partly because the monster had materialised, and he was therefore no longer merely a human emblem of the moral vortex at the centre of capitalism, but also an actual human, goofily got up in polo shirt and shorts, sweating in the heat, traipsing along to an art gallery to indulge his human curiosity about what the art world thought of his notoriously weird and extreme politics.
A sovereign individual in the same physical environment as us ordinary subject citizens. But it also deepened the mystery of what Thiel had planned for New Zealand, for the future. There was one mystery that did get solved, though not by me: the admittedly frivolous enigma of what sort of renovations those builders were working on at the apocalyptic pied-a-terre in Queenstown.
Thiel was making some alterations to the master bedroom. He was putting in a panic room.
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