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By Saturday, 29 July 2023

Inside the billionaire business plan for the apocalypse

As The Guardian noted that same year, that anxiety wasn't limited to global health crises. After Donald Trump's surprise presidential victory, in the "two days following the 2016 election," the number of Americans who visited New Zealand's Department of Internal Affairs 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."

"Saying you're 'buying a house in New Zealand' is kind of a wink, wink, say no more," LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman explained to The New Yorker. "Once you've done the Masonic handshake, they'll be, like, 'Oh, you know, I have a broker who sells old ICBM silos, and they're nuclear-hardened, and they kind of look like they would be interesting to live in.'"

A little over three years later, the cartoonish notion of a New Zealand escape plan took on a more immediate significance, as the island nation's reputation as a Covid-era haven soared among the global elite. "None of these guys that I deal with say they're preparing for the end of the world," one luxury real estate agent told CNN. "They say things like, 'In times of geopolitical pressure, New Zealand is a cool place to be because it's farther away.'" A similar boom in bunker interest followed Russia's invasion of Ukraine, with one retailer in 2022 claiming that "in the past month, I would have normally fielded less than 100 inquiries — I've fielded over 3,000."

Still, for as much as New Zealand, in particular, may have become a shibboleth of sorts for Hoffman's crowd, it's far from the sole refuge for the ultra-wealthy seeking to ride out the — or at least an — apocalypse. In 2022, technology and media journalist Douglas Rushkoff wrote about his meeting with a "group mysteriously described as 'ultra-wealthy stakeholders,' out in the middle of the desert." After awkward introductions with the five men present (two of whom, Rushkoff noted, were billionaires), "eventually, they edged into their real topic of concern: New Zealand or Alaska? Which region would be less affected by the coming climate crisis?"

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"This was probably the wealthiest, most powerful group I had ever encountered," Rushkoff wrote. "Yet here they were, asking a Marxist media theorist for advice on where and how to configure their doomsday bunkers." He describes various post-doomsday properties in the New York City region, luxury prepper hideaways in decommissioned military facilities around the world that "offer private suites for individuals or families, and larger common areas with pools, games, movies and dining" and even an "ultra-elite" shelter in the Czech Republic with a "simulated sunlit garden area, a wine vault and other amenities to make the wealthy feel at home."

Billionaire bunkers and 'soft succession'

As The Nation's Jeet Heer noted in the wake of the Nauru revelations, this tendency toward ultra-wealthy prepper-ism isn't simply about apocalyptic paranoia. It should be taken in the context of what libertarian commentator Jeff Deist has dubbed "soft succession." For the ultra-wealthy, this means retreating into "unusual legal spaces, anomalous territories and peculiar jurisdictions," including "city-states, havens, enclaves, free ports, high-tech parks, duty-free districts and innovation hubs," all for the broader purpose of removing themselves to some degree from a democratic society they feel in some way hampers their pursuit of unimpeded business and personal freedom.

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