Somewhere in rural New Zealand (possibly Waiheke Island) around early March 2020, a tech billionaire stood at the threshold of his never-before-used underground shelter, unable to gain entry. He had just flown in with his family from New York, escaping what was fast becoming the epicentre of the pandemic, and arriving in New Zealand just before the government closed its borders. He was unable to gain entry because he couldn’t remember the code combination to the bunker’s secret entrance. Having travelled all this way, spent all that money, preparing for this very moment of apparent global meltdown, he was finally denied salvation by his own forgetfulness. But of course, as we now know, it wasn’t the actual apocalypse. He called the bunker manufacturer Rising S Co in Texas, and there was someone at the other end of the line, on-hand to help him gain access.
“As far as I know”, Rising S Co CEO Gary Lynch told Bloomberg reporter Olivia Carville, “he’s still there”, waiting for the whole thing to blow over no doubt. For months, maybe even years, he and his family could have sealed themselves off from the outside world, with more than enough resources to keep themselves going.
This all sounds pretty lonely, but he wasn’t alone. In recent years, many other billionaires have bought property in New Zealand for the same reasons, among them PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, billionaire hedge fund manager Julian Robertson, and Y Combinator co-founder Sam Altman. The country’s temperate climate, its decent healthcare system, and, most importantly, its remoteness, make it a decent spot to build their elaborate safe rooms and doomsday shelters in relative secrecy and embark upon the “Great Strike” foretold in Ayn Rand’s sprawling 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged.
In the book, the right-libertarian philosopher depicts a dystopian future society which is falling apart because the handful of genius men holding up the world have been prevented from pursuing their own self-interest by a state apparatus bent on enforcing equality upon humanity. The narrative covers the events following the announcement of the strike, which aims at getting the world’s thinkers and inventors to stop working for a society that takes them for granted. A small group of so-called “men of the mind” take up the call, and retreat to a remote valley in rural Colorado owned by fellow mind-man Midas Mulligan. They choose to name the community after the strike’s leader, the shadowy industrialist John Galt.
Besides offering up one of literature’s most brilliantly clumsy visions of utopia, Rand’s book has over the years come to inform and support the actions of a small but influential section of the global super-rich elite, as they become increasingly materially and spiritually detached from the rest of society. This is especially evident in the United States, where we’ve seen the emergence over the past few decades of what can only be described as an oligarchy, in which wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of an increasingly small group of people while the rest of the population is forced to endure chronic wage stagnation and diminishing life prospects. Seeing in Rand’s philosophy a means of justifying society’s growing inequities, some of the principal architects of these economic and political shifts have expressed outspoken admiration for the novel’s so-called “Objectivist” ideas.
Chief among them is one of our New Zealand bunker builders Peter Thiel, who in an interview on The Rubin Report first recalled reading Ayn Rand’s books as a teenager, citing them as a striking prediction of the overreach of big government. Aside from building his own bunker, in 2008 Thiel became the first major investor in the Seasteading Institute, one of the more established and ideologically-driven attempts to realise the kind of breakaway libertarian society Rand envisioned in Atlas Shrugged, this time on the high seas. In his essay “The Education of a Libertarian”, written for Cato Unbound that same year, Thiel expressed his belief in the essential incompatibility of freedom and democracy, suggesting that all freedom lovers should consider expanding into new frontiers — cyberspace, outer space and, his personal preference the sea — where “new technologies… may create a new space for freedom” free from the tyranny of politics.
The appeal of Rand’s philosophy for Thiel and his fellow Silicon Valley tech moguls is pretty understandable. Her appropriation of scientific language, her enthusiasm for technological innovation, and her valorisation of “men of the mind” all help elevate their achievements as the product of their own genius. She centers them as the hero of their own story and provides a much-needed pseudo-intellectual heft to justify the otherwise unconscionable possession of such extreme wealth in the midst of profound social decline.
Aside from justifying the billionaire’s breathtakingly self-centered behaviour, the narrative of Atlas Shrugged offers in Galt’s Gulch a striking image of the world this kind of thinking would lead to: a place completely free of society and all its constraints. As the most obvious contemporary articulation of this utopian thinking, the bunkers embody the pathetic reality of these ideas when they’re actually put into practice.
So what are people actually getting when they buy a bunker?
In the case of Rising S Co, the company offers a variety of different bunkers, including $39,500 mini bunkers “designed especially for the blue-collar American family”, although with only a single bunk bed and a surface area of just 96 sq. ft (8.9 sq. m), it would have to be a pretty small family. At the other end of the scale sits “The Aristocrat”, a cavernous bunker costing $8.35M. Notable features of The Aristocrat include a greenhouse, a garage, a games room, and a cinema adjoining a bowling alley and firing range. The 3D rendering Rising S Co provides for the bunker is bleak to say the least. Jaunty music accompanies a tour of room after room bathed in unnatural light, emphasised by unadorned beige walls running throughout the complex. All this is presumably meant to suggest a blank slate for the buyer to decorate as they see fit, but it’s hard not to judge the interior at face value and imagine the feeling upon arriving with your family in such an eerily bland living space after society has just collapsed.
The other big player on the doomsday bunker market is Vivos, whose approach differs somewhat from Rising S Co’s offer. Rather than delivering the bunker to a place of the buyer’s choosing, they are repurposing existing underground complexes, mostly from the Cold War. Like Rising S Co, however, they offer a mix of cheap and luxury options. Take for instance Europa One, which is located in a former nuclear bunker in Germany. Here, you can buy semi-private suites at $35,000 per person or a private apartment for $2M. In describing the possibilities for outfitting the 2,500 sq. ft (232 sq. m) private apartment, the company’s point of reference is, tellingly, the mega yacht: apartments can “include all of the typical amenities enjoyed by their floating counterparts, including pools, theaters, gyms, a kitchen, bar, bedrooms and deluxe bathrooms”.
One of the most interesting things about these descriptions is the dark subtext implied by what they’re actually insuring against. The complex guarantees all inhabitants enough food for one year of autonomous survival, but they don’t talk about what might happen after a year if it’s still unsafe to return to the surface. As with all the other Vivos facilities, Europa One is equipped with a security and detention centre. Aside from heavily hinting at the pessimistic mindset of those buying into this concept, it’s easy to assume (though by no means explicit) that the detention centre is there to protect wealthier inhabitants if they have to remain in the bunker beyond a year and their semi-private counterparts start making unwarranted claims on the dwindling food supply.
Indeed, you probably learn more from the questions that remain unanswered by these sites: how are they going to protect the community from outsiders? Who is going to fulfil the menial tasks? How will they replenish supplies and maintain essential equipment and machinery?
Atlas Shrugged mostly deals in fantasy when addressing these same questions. The Gulch doesn’t need an army because it is protected by a refractor beam which obscures the valley from outside view, technology that is still pure science fiction. It also doesn’t need an army of labourers because, in an utterly fanciful scenario, Rand’s mind-men end up for the most part abandoning their former gold collar occupations and taking up as quasi-homesteaders. The book depicts them working the land and carrying out basic tasks of subsistence and/or specialising in supplying a single essential commodity (bricks, shoes, tobacco) and trading it in one of the modest, free-standing one- or two-storey buildings, mostly built of brick or timber frame that line the community’s main street. It’s a lot like the Wild West, as imagined by someone who’s concept of the world hasn’t developed since adolescence.
As for the question of maintaining technology, Rand leaves the problem largely unexplained. Consider the tractor that Gulcher Dwight Sanders is said to have designed and manufactured by hand, something which is “nowhere near as plausible or as easy as Rand makes it sound” according to a blog by Adam Lee about the book. “It is as if her capitalists can just will complex machines into existence“ Lee says.
But if a tractor’s hard, what about something as complex as, say, the password-activated secure door required to protect your bunker from the mass of people who didn’t have the wealth or wherewithal to prep for doomsday? Or the hydroponic equipment needed to operate a subterranean farm? What this whole worldview takes for granted, moreover, is that the kind of people who fulfil the role of “men of the mind” would be singularly self-sacrificing, willing to give up pretty much all the comforts society has afforded them for a life which is famously tough (this coming from a philosophy which specifically condemns society for its lack of selfishness). In reality, these are the kinds of people that have become so detached from physical labour that they wouldn’t know a hammer from a sickle.
Taken together, the unanswered questions left by both Rand’s Gulch and the billionaire doomsday preppers express a kind of hyper reification, where the hugely complex relations required to protect, maintain, produce and reproduce the wide array of goods and processes which prevail in a developed society are deliberately obscured by a fanciful notion that they can be willed into being by the singular determination of a brilliant, rational thinker. In Rand’s narrative, it is original ideas that make society tick. The work and workers required to realise these ideas, meanwhile, are invisible, or unnecessary. But in the months, years, and decades after they hole up in their bunkers, how do they expect they’ll maintain reliable access to the support staff they depend upon for almost everything? And besides, in the likely event of a breakdown in the system that sustains their wealth, what good is their money anyway?
In a 2018 article written for One Zero, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff recounts a bizarre experience in which he found himself sitting around a table with an elite group of hedge fund managers exploring these very questions. They started by asking Rushkoff which place he thought would be least impacted by the climate crisis, “New Zealand or Alaska?”, but quickly moved to a question which occupied them for much of the rest of the conversation: how to maintain authority over a security force after what they called “the event” (their catch-all term for pandemic, climate breakdown, nuclear armageddon, etc.). The billionaires took it for granted that they’d need to protect their haven from the masses, but what would keep their staff incentivised and what’s to stop this staff from taking control of the place themselves? The proposals were pretty fucking dark: disciplinary collars, or exclusive access to the food supply.
This gives a good impression of the medium-term survival strategy of today’s oligarchy. But the long term plans entailed by this arrangement are, again, conspicuously absent. Probably because there are none; this is a singularly shortsighted response to the terrible things these rich men expect for human civilisation. Similarly, Atlas Shrugged makes no effort to explain how society can reproduce itself in the long term, not just in terms of how social structures will sustain themselves in these extremely isolationist circumstances but also in terms of literal human reproduction. Indeed, the book is famous for its conspicuous omission of children. Inherently dependent on their parents, children simply don’t fit into Rand’s utopia. Nor do they fit into the contemporary oligarch’s bleak post-apocalyptic vision.
But that’s the nature of the economic model which these oligarchs have presided over. Arguments for neoliberalism have always been at their most potent when they have completely ignored the future. That’s a big reason why it’s imperial phase is often associated with Francis Fukuyama’s famous book The End of History, a claim which also implies the end of futurity. By embracing an endless present, neoliberalism’s proponents have avoided a reckoning with how precarious their world has become and how difficult it would be to avoid the consequences of the situation they’ve created.
Even the most elaborate bunkers on the market seem only to offer about five years of self-sufficiency. More than creating the new society Rand writes about, the real-life rich are just trying to hoard enough resources to live off the grid until the crisis passes over. What they’re buying into is either a one-way ticket to a world beyond recognition, where their wealth and prestige counts for nothing, or a slow, lonely and expensive death. They deserve the latter.
But Rand’s philosophy hasn’t registered with just the oligarchy. It also appeals to many people of far more modest means. This is most apparent in the behaviour of the middle classes throughout the developed world, whose growing precarity has forced them simultaneously to retreat to gated communities and vote in ever greater numbers for any government that promises protection of property values above all else. There are also more explicit manifestations of Rand’s influence among a significant cohort of people outside the 1%, something well illustrated in the publicity surrounding the three-part film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged (recommended only with a drink in hand). In particular, for the first film, the producers asked fans of the book to film videos of themselves saying “I am John Galt”. While the videos are very funny, it’s also sad to behold these distinctly ordinary-looking people so passionately expressing their affinity with a philosophy which has offered them so little.
In her recent book Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed, Lisa Duggan has called this behaviour “optimistic cruelty”. Inverting Lauren Berlant’s concept of “cruel optimism” (the tendency for people to maintain a deep emotional attachment to something, e.g. the American Dream, despite overwhelming evidence that it won’t deliver on what it appears to promise), optimistic cruelty captures the parallel tendency for people to come to identify with the 1%, despite being victims of this cohort’s greedy self-interest.
As Duggan has explained in an interview with Daniel Denvir for The Dig, “the people who are buying her books would overwhelmingly be among Rand’s inferior masses, but they don’t see themselves that way because her version of aspirational individualism allows them to exceptionalise themselves from the masses”. Rand’s books generate a desire for capitalism by painting a deeply affecting image of “having sex and being gorgeous and making it”, Duggan explains, which her readers can achieve, so long as they avoid “solidarity with the mass losers”.
For these ordinary Rand supporters, the contemporary doomsday prepping phenomenon represents a final “fuck you” from the billionaire oligarchs. Their life prospects have been devastated by the oligarchy’s greed, and now it seems they’re about to be left to rot in a society that the oligarchs themselves have clearly given up on. Either that or they might get a spot in one of those puny 8.9 sq.m bunkers or semi-private suites, eking out a miserable existence, probably in service to their billionaire overlords. Faced with that prospect, the truly heroic option is staring them in the face: solidarity with their fellow “inferior” masses, smashing the rule of the super-elite slobs.