To Live and Die in Utopian New Zealand

Kai Schwörer/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

If the world is going to end with a whimper not a bang, then some of the world’s richest people are going to whimper together in New Zealand. People like Trump supporter and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel have staked their claim on the small island nation as the ideal refuge during a global apocalypse. The narcissism involved in such survivalism is staggering but par for the course; capitalists like Thiel have destabilized our world economically and ecologically, and now they want to buy their way out of the destructive ramifications in someone else’s country. New Zealand has strict rules around citizenship and land ownership for foreign nationals, which is why Thiel’s secretive acquisition of piece of the South Island raised many concerns.

Curious himself, Irish writer Mark O’Connell searched for answers for The Guardian, to understand the peculiar ideological appeal of New Zealand to a certain class of Silicon Valley elite. What he found while touring the New Zealand countryside is unnerving and infuriating, particularly the way many billionaires plan to profit on global catastrophe, and the possibility that Thiel intends to turn New Zealand into his own country after its collapse. Fortunately, O’Connell sees the dark comedy of it all. He calls Thiel “a canary in capitalism’s coal mine who also happens to have profited lavishly from his stake in the mining concern itself.” He shows how Thiel is “a caricature of outsized villainy,” and “a human emblem of the moral vortex at the centre of the market.”

The Kiwis I spoke with were uncomfortably aware of what Thiel’s interest in their country represented, of how it seemed to figure more generally in the frontier fantasies of American libertarians. Max Harris – the author of The New Zealand Project, the book that informed the game-sculptures on the upper level of The Founder’s Paradox – pointed out that, for much of its history, the country tended to be viewed as a kind of political Petri dish (it was, for instance, the first nation to recognise women’s right to vote), and that this “perhaps makes Silicon Valley types think it’s a kind of blank canvas to splash ideas on”.

When we met in her office at the Auckland University of Technology, the legal scholar Khylee Quince insisted that any invocation of New Zealand as a utopia was a “giant red flag”, particularly to Māori like herself. “That is the language of emptiness and isolation that was always used about New Zealand during colonial times,” she said. And it was always, she stressed, a narrative that erased the presence of those who were already here: her own Māori ancestors. The first major colonial encounter for Māori in the 19th century was not with representatives of the British crown, she pointed out, but with private enterprise. 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. The company embarked on a series of expeditions in the 1820s 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. In the utopian fantasies of techno-libertarians like Thiel, Quince saw an echo of that period of her country’s history. “Business,” she said, “got here first.”

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