In trying times, many of us gravitate to escapist cultural consumption — think Seth Rogen watching Cats for the first time while very, very high. You’d assume that a story about mid-market post-apocalyptic bunkers in South Dakota would be the last thing to fit that bill, yet I somehow found Mark O’Connell’s excerpt on that very topic, in The Guardian, oddly soothing.
The piece takes great pleasure in describing the obvious folly of the enterprise — how could it not? (I kept wondering: all these communities would depend on contracted armed forces for protection, but what would stop these mercenaries from killing their wealthy overlords and taking over all the fancy dry foods in their underground pantries?) But it also shows how this absurd concept is, in fact, a very natural next step for a society that largely refuses to act as one.
The place was, I read on the company’s website, “strategically and centrally located in one of the safest areas of North America”, at an altitude of about 1,200 metres and 100 miles from the nearest known military nuclear targets. “Vivos security team can spot anyone approaching the property from three miles away. Massive. Safe. Secure. Isolated. Private. Defensible. Off-Grid. Centrally located.” It was not intuitively clear to me how a place could be both isolated and centrally located, but, to be fair, if pretty much the entire rest of the world had perished, any settlement of living humans would have legitimate grounds to proclaim itself centrally located.
Vivos was offering more than just the provision of ready-made bunkers and turnkey apocalypse solutions. It was offering a vision of a post-state future. When you bought into such a scheme, you tapped into a fever dream from the depths of the libertarian lizard-brain: a group of well-off and ideologically like-minded individuals sharing an autonomous space, heavily fortified against outsiders — the poor, the hungry, the desperate, the unprepared — and awaiting its moment to rebuild civilisation from the ground up. What was being offered, as such, was a state stripped down to its bare rightwing essentials: a militarised security apparatus, engaged through contractual arrangement, for the protection of private wealth.
End-time real estate was an increasingly competitive racket. On the website of one major purveyor of luxury apocalypse solutions, Trident Lakes, I read that in the event of a nuclear, chemical or biological emergency, the properties would be sealed by automatic airlocks and blast doors, and that each would be connected via a network of tunnels to an underground community centre featuring dry food storage, DNA vaults, fully equipped exercise rooms and meeting areas. The promotional blurb also promised such features as a retail district, an equestrian centre and polo field, an 18-hole golf course and a driving range.
This was a new entry into the canon of apocalyptic scenarios: bankers and hedge-fund managers, tanned and relaxed, taking the collapse of civilisation as an opportunity to spend some time on the links, while a heavily armed private police force roamed the perimeter in search of intruders. All of this was a logical extension of the gated community. It was a logical extension of capitalism itself.