the view from the top of the pyramid of power
Joined: 30 Aug 2008
|Posted: Fri Feb 09, 2018 12:28 pm Post subject: Web oligarch Peter Thiel: Bilderberg economic warfare chief
Internet Oligarch Peter Thiel: Bilderberg Banker, Or Economic Warfare Commandant?
By Matt Nippert. Visuals by Mike Scott. Design by Rob Cox.
Peter Thiel is an internet oligarch who believes in a stateless world free of regulation or limits on human endeavour. He made millions on PayPal, and billions on Facebook.
He lobbied New Zealand Cabinet ministers and public servants, presenting himself as our exceptional angel of venture capital.
He was secretly granted citizenship, but within months of his “solemn vow” appeared to move on. He has barely seen since and has recently been buying up real estate while selling down his local technology investments.
What remains are his boltholes in Queenstown and questions over whether political pressure played any part in his granting of citizenship.
Thiel declined to be interviewed for this story, but issued a brief statement about the saga saying, “I believe in New Zealand”, and noting that he’s invested $50 million in New Zealand tech companies.
This story is, instead, based on dozens of interviews and hundreds of pages of documents sourced under the Official Information Act.
This is the story of Citizen Thiel.
PART ONE: CRUSH
Queenstown: Thiel has a long affinity with the South Island’s high-rolling tourist town, first visiting more than 20 years ago.
It was 1995 when Peter Andreas Thiel first visited New Zealand. He was 28 and the German-born naturalised American was yet to found a single company. The billionaire-to-be would have been indistinguishable from the hordes of middle-class tourists also enjoying the thrills of Queenstown.
Thiel was drawn to the region’s adventure tourism industry at least partly out of his disdain for government regulation. In his only local public speech to date, at an Auckland University conference in 2011, he spoke of his white-knuckled ride on the Shotover Jet as being among “all the crazy things you can do in New Zealand that you can’t do anywhere else, risky things that are probably not allowed [elsewhere]”.
Thiel was taken with Queenstown’s adventure tourist industry, and has talked glowingly about his experience on the Shotover Jet.
Thiel — now worth $3.7 billion and with deep links to Western intelligence agencies, the Trump administration and the Silicon Valley firms dominating the internet — seemed, in 1995, to still be in search of a purpose. Around this time the Stanford graduate changed jobs from judicial clerk to securities lawyer to derivatives trader.
Three years later he’d find that purpose, co-founding online payment company PayPal to set himself up to make a small fortune that he’d later leverage into a large one.
According to his 2012 book Zero to One, his purpose is more than making money and extends to escaping limits of both the human body and social rules. An interest in lifespan extension (including transfusing blood from the young), musing whether freedom was compatible with democracy, and support for artificial island habitats free from the constraints of traditional government and laws have led critics to caricature him a Bond villain for the internet age.
PayPal: Co-founded by Thiel in 1999, he made $75 million when the online payments firm was sold to eBay in 2002.
And, as with most caricatures, underneath lies a grain of truth. Thiel says in Zero to One that his first company sought to do far more than simply make online transactions easier. “PayPal had a suitably grand mission — the kind that post-bubble sceptics would later describe as grandiose. We wanted to create a new internet currency to replace the US dollar.”
Zero to One sketches out Thiel’s vision of technology enabling a world post-government, and is broadly shared by PayPal’s other founders — a group of young men who grew into a new generation of technology oligarchs.
Elon Musk went on to create Tesla and SpaceX; Reid Hoffman started LinkedIn; Steve Chen founded YouTube. As their influence grew this crew would become known as the “PayPal mafia”.
While the other members of the PayPal mafia were spreading their wings and priming their rockets in the United States, Thiel took a short detour and sought to formalise his relationship with New Zealand.
His application included two years of tax returns, the disclosure of two reckless-driving convictions in February 2000 (officials ruled these were minor and wouldn’t count against his application), and a schedule of assets as part of a listing of his net worth.
Thiel made more than $1 billion from a 2004 investment of $750,000 in Facebook. While he’s since cashed out his shares, he still serves as a director on the social media giant’s board.
Incomplete redactions show Thiel was by this point rich from PayPal — sold to online retailer eBay — but not yet super-rich. His declared net worth at this point ran to only nine figures. His $750,000 punt in 2004 on a small start-up called Facebook was yet to level him up to the realm of the world's billionaires.
But in the end, only a relatively small slice of wealth was needed to nudge Thiel’s application over the line. The points-based visa he sought awarded him eight for his age — young migrants being preferred — and four for business experience. Applicants are allowed to pump up their score by setting aside funds to invest and awarded one point per $1 million. Thiel was just one point short.
Correspondence from his advisers talked about the possibility of investing the required million into vineyards or property, and Thiel himself indicated on his application form he had a particular interest in the South Island.
Damper Bay: His $13.5m purchase of a 193-hectare section on the shores of Lake Wanaka first brought Thiel’s citizenship to notice as his new status meant the deal did not require Overseas Investment Office approval.
As it turns out, that $1m tagged for investment ended up stashed in a term deposit for the required two years. And, of all the financial institutions in all the places he could have chosen to park this money, documents show he opted for the National Bank’s provincial branch in Whanganui.
The choice of an out-of-the-way bank seems to speak to Thiel’s tightly-guarded privacy. Bank workers in Whanganui — hardly a tech mecca, with an agricultural economy and population of barely 40,000 — would have been unlikely to pick their new client as an offshore dotcom multimillionaire.
This preference for discretion didn’t end there. In a New York Times opinion piece explaining why he was bankrolling defamation action against a gossip site he stated: “The defense of privacy in the digital age is an ongoing cause." Last year his lawyer lobbied New Zealand's Department of Internal Affairs to redact information from material released under the Official Information Act.
And, shortly after news of Thiel’s surprise New Zealand citizenship broke in January 2017, Jeremiah Hall of San Francisco’s Torch Communications acknowledged questions for Thiel about the issue.
“I’ll be back in touch if we have any comment,” he said.
He did not get back in touch.
In the 12 months since, the Herald has 10 times asked questions of Thiel — about his citizenship, his shrinking holdings in Kiwi software firm Xero, why he appears to have ghosted New Zealand, ties between his firm Palantir and local intelligence agencies, and even the celebrity classic, “What do you think of New Zealand?” And 10 times he again did not get back in touch.
But on the eve of publication of this story — a year and a day after questions were first asked about this saga — Thiel broke his silence with a short statement.
“I believe in New Zealand, and I believe the future of New Zealand’s technology industry is still underrated. I look forward to helping it succeed long-term.”
Thiel has stayed in touch with the country with short visits every few years, but it was around the 2008 United States presidential election that he took a serious focus on Middle-earth.
Thiel’s horse in United States politics at this time wasn’t nearly as successful as Trump would be eight years later. He’d initially backed Ron Paul for the Republican nomination, and after the libertarian outsider tanked in primaries he switched to party candidate John McCain. But McCain also tanked and Democratic candidate Barack Obama swept into the White House.
John Key: Thiel was enamoured with the National government, and met the Prime Minister in 2010 to expound on his plans to boost the New Zealand tech sector.
Where one window to government closed in 2008, another opened. Days after Obama’s victory, a fresh-faced financier named John Key took control of the Beehive. Thiel liked what he saw.
Rod Drury, whose cloud software company Xero is the biggest winner from Thiel’s brush with New Zealand, says his keystone shareholder was then disillusioned with the United States.
“If you know Peter, and if you’ve tracked him for years like I have, he was always into small government. He really likes that, compared with the US at the time, we were pretty much a free-market economy, fairly lightly regulated. You can imagine the affinity he’d have with that,” he says.
Rod Drury: Xero founder and chief executive Drury counted Thiel as one of his earliest and most significant investors.
Drury acknowledges a closer examination of the National Party’s platform would likely see them placed on the left wing of the Democratic Party, but he says Thiel was more interested in the general direction the country seemed to be going.
This affinity escalated into a courtship that would see multiple meetings with Cabinet ministers, lawyers from a high-end law firm shuttle from Auckland to Wellington to lobby Internal Affairs, and bold statements made about rerouting rivers of Silicon Valley capital and the establishment of a high-tech incubator in Auckland.
By the end New Zealand — or at least some officials in Internal Affairs — were smitten. But even Drury acknowledges we may have been naïve.
PART TWO: COURTSHIP
Thiel came on heavy in the two years ahead of his audacious and ultimately successful bid for citizenship in 2011. He visited the country three times during the period in a whirlwind of lobbying, business deals and public relations.
He met no fewer than four senior members of the Cabinet — including the Prime Minister — to present his case for turbocharging New Zealand’s tech industry, arranged his first business investment (five years after first being granted an investment visa), started buying real estate, and gave his first and, so far, only interview with New Zealand media.
The formal part of his bold quest saw his lawyers Bell Gully travel from Auckland to Wellington in late 2010 to hand-deliver a letter from Thiel to the Minister of Internal Affairs with his truly exceptional request.
“In the course of pursuing my international business opportunities, my travel, personal philosophical commitments and benefaction, I am happy to say categorically that I have found no other country that aligns more with my view of the future than New Zealand,” Thiel wrote.
“It would give me great pride to let it be known that I am a New Zealand citizen.”
The letter was accompanied by a note from his lawyer making it clear his client’s application would require the Minister to exercise rare discretion under “exceptional circumstances” rules, as Thiel was not intending to live here and sought unprecedented “citizenship at large”.
“Mr Thiel’s principal place of residence cannot be described in the context of the ordinary rules,” Thiel’s lawyers said.
In mid-2010, Thiel had incorporated Valar Ventures, a limited partnership which he said in his letter was intended to “become an active player in New Zealand’s venture capital industry”. The fund’s name is a reference to the mythical beings who created the world in The Lord of the Rings. Its first major target was Xero.
The accountancy software company was floated in 2007 and, three years on, the local sharemarket still didn’t know what to make of this ambitious company burning cash which saw profitability as only a medium-term objective. Its share price was languishing close to its $1 launch.
Drury, the company’s energetic founder and chief executive, says Thiel’s representatives came knocking in early 2010.
“They came to our offices, we met them a few times, they seemed impressed. So we took distance out of the equation and said, ‘Well, shall we come up and meet Peter?’”
That trip to San Francisco to pay homage to Thiel’s court was, recounts Drury, “one of the most exciting meetings that I’ve had”.
Drury says he doesn’t share Thiel’s libertarian views but is laissez-faire when it comes to ideology.
“They’re quite intense those guys, those PayPal guys. They’re really seen as royalty in the global tech scene. And he’s incredibly bright, and he’s always been a contrarian. He’s one of those people [who will] always stretch you,” Drury says.
Recounting the mood at the time, Drury conveys the impression of a starstruck nation.
Playing the Trump card: Thiel speaking at the 2016 Republican Convention crowning Donald Trump as the party’s ultimately successful candidate for the United States presidency.
“Everyone was so excited to see him. I think we were so flattered that someone of that status in the technology industry was even interested in New Zealand."
In October 2010, Xero announced Thiel had tipped $4m into the company.
Drury describes this development as a “massive deal” that was instrumental in growing his company into the multi-billion-dollar business it is today — and said Thiel began looking locally, unsuccessfully as it turned out, for more Xeros.
During this period Thiel seems to have made a conscious effort to court the new National Party Government, meeting Key, Finance Minister Bill English, Minister of Economic Development Gerry Brownlee and Minister of Science Wayne Mapp.
Bill English: The then-Finance Minister also met Thiel in May 2010, but officials say no records of what was discussed exist.
English confirmed a May 2010 meeting, but said no records of what was discussed existed. Official Information Act requests to the Prime Minister’s Office regarding the meeting with Key were not answered — but the then-Prime Minister told Parliament in 2013 he’d met Thiel on “a few occasions” and described the relationship as “cordial”.
In early 2011, Thiel’s camp made contact with the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund (NZVIF), seeking to partner with the taxpayer-funded body to invest further in local tech firms.
NZVIF staff also made the pilgrimage to San Francisco that August, and a deal was inked in December to set up a $40m fund. Of this, Thiel was supposed to kick in $15m and the Government $20m, with Stephen Tindall and handful of other smaller local investors making up the difference.
Crucially, the deal included a generous buy-back clause, allowing Thiel and his private-sector partners to split losses with the Government if the fund tanked, but collect all the profits if it did well. The clause had been standard in NZVIF deals — intended to encourage the development of local venture-capital markets — but its inclusion with the Valar fund would later raise questions in Parliament and help see the clause retired from use.
While this was being finalised, Nathan Guy replied to Thiel’s letter, advising him to submit a formal application to officials who would draft a report for the Minister’s consideration.
That report from officials highlighted his connection to ministers, especially Key. Thiel wasn’t just giving a talk at Auckland University that June, he was “presenting at a conference in Auckland in July (along with the Prime Minister)”. Thiel didn’t just donate $1m to the Christchurch earthquake recovery, he made a donation “facilitated by Mark Weldon, chief executive of NZX, on behalf of the Prime Minister”.
Thiel stated an intention to help establish a technology incubator in Auckland and set up a landing pad in San Francisco to assist New Zealand companies breaking into the United States.
Largely on the basis of these non-binding intentions, that single earthquake donation and the relatively modest $4m invested to date in Xero, along with another — failed — Pacific internet cable company, officials concluded he was an exceptional philanthropist and investor and recommended his application be approved.
“It is interesting ... I think the Minister may go for it,” one official emailed to another at the time.
Gerry Brownlee: The then-Minister for Economic Development also met Thiel during his whirlwind of government lobbying in 2010.
Peter Dunne was Minister of Internal Affairs when news of Thiel’s citizenship broke a year ago, but he was not at the time of the application. He wouldn’t have gone for it.
Speaking from his Khandallah home, Dunne admits he initially didn’t know who Thiel was when the news broke. But after becoming aware he was a “person of significance”, Dunne immediately reviewed the citizenship file. His copy, of course, was unredacted.
Now retired and transitioned from his trademark bowties to an open-necked collar, Dunne is relaxed and frank in saying he is unconvinced by the case made by officials.
“I looked at the documentation the Minister would have received, which basically said, ‘These are the facts and, by the way, we recommend it’. I thought, ‘I can’t quite see how you to get to this conclusion on the face of the fact he’d been in the country only 12 days.’”
The 12 days became a minor national scandal for some when it was belatedly revealed — after having been initially redacted at the request of Thiel’s lawyers until the Ombudsman forced its release — and showed the billionaire had failed to meet even 1 per cent of the typically required 1350 days of in-country residence in the five years prior to being granted citizenship.
Information released by Immigration NZ shows his fleeting appearances during this period were typical. In the three years after he was awarded his investor visa in 2006, he spent six days in New Zealand. In total, during the 16 years prior to Guy awarding him a passport, his combined stay in the country amounted to fewer than five weeks, or around the same length of stay as a single visit by an typical backpacker.
Not a Dunne deal: Peter Dunne, Minister of Internal Affairs at the time Thiel’s citizenship became public, says questions remain over his predecessor’s decision.
Dunne’s opinion of Thiel’s bid is: “Give me citizenship: I want the passport, but don’t expect me to put in an appearance.”
Asked what he’d have done if he’d been in the chair in 2011, Dunne said: “To me, had the application come across my desk for consideration, I’d have said no.”
But he wasn’t the one occupying the Minister’s office. That was Guy who, in the days after his decision was revealed a year ago, pleaded ignorance.
“I don’t recall this specific application,” he said.
Dunne is unable to understand Guy’s decision to approve Thiel’s application. “I can only speculate. As I say, the documentation gives no clue. Whether it was the prospect of investment from Mr Thiel, or whether there was some form of political pressure, I don’t know.”
For its part, Internal Affairs denied their former minister’s suggestion that its advice was subject to political interference. “The Department is satisfied that it tendered robust information and advice on what the minister of the day had to weigh up in making a decision on whether or not to grant citizenship.”
The senior official who wrote the recommendation in 2011 has since retired from Internal Affairs and moved to Australia. He did not return repeated calls or emails from the Herald.
With a signature, Guy approved Thiel’s request application on June 30, 2011, and a month later, in a private ceremony at the New Zealand consulate at Santa Monica in California, the technology billionaire swore on the Bible to become Citizen Thiel.
An award of citizenship is effectively permanent and is granted without subject to conditions. It allows voting and residence rights and the ability to run for office, and can only be revoked under extreme circumstances.
Thiel’s lawyer used almost religious language in explaining how important his client considered this moment.
“Mr Thiel has advised that citizenship is irrevocable. It is the public recognition of a hallowed bond. For that reason and others, he is prepared to make this solemn allegiance to thereby embrace and contribute to the life, history and culture of New Zealand.”
PART THREE: GHOSTING
With passport in hand, the eye of Citizen Thiel began to wander almost immediately.
Six months after the Santa Monica ceremony that had made him a citizen, the mission listed on Valar Ventures’ website — which had previously billed itself as having been “founded to help grow New Zealand into a hub of technological progress” — was rewritten to remove references to the country that had just gifted him his new nationality.
Valar was instead given a global mandate and would go on to make investments in Brazil and Australia. The fund invested in precisely one new company locally after 2011 — retail software firm Vend. The investment used funds from a mixture of private and public sources through the NZVIF joint venture.
While publicised numbers around Thiel splurging capital locally look impressive — $4.5m initially in Xero and Pacific Fibre, $15m into the NZVIF partnership, another $22m into Xero in late 2012, with tens of millions more in 2013 — the headlines overlap.
Thiel’s initial $4.5m in local investments was included in the NZVIF deal as his initial contribution. The latter Xero and Vend investments also included co-investors and government cash from its matching contribution to the NZVIF partnership.
And this partnership fund itself languished and didn’t even meet half its billed potential — the NZVIF joint venture was initially touted as worth $40m, with Thiel contributing $15m — but he ended up tipping in just over $7m.
Thiel’s financial structuring uses multiple entities, and the terms of venture capital deals are notoriously secretive with hard numbers and details of third-party investors not made public, so the extent of his investment into local tech companies is difficult to confirm and has been redacted from official documents.
A spokesperson for Thiel said the billionaire’s total investment to date in local tech firms was $50m.
Meanwhile, offshore, Thiel was running into some challenges. His hedge fund Clarium Capital Management lost the house on a large and wrong bet on oil supplies collapsing. Outside investors fled and by 2011 it was one-twentieth the size of its peak with barely a couple of hundred million of Thiel’s own capital remaining.
But all was not lost. Facebook was edging towards a public listing that would allow Thiel to exit and crown one of the most spectacular deals of the internet era. The $750,000 investment he’d made in in 2004 was largely cashed out following the 2012 IPO for more than $1.3b.
If Thiel was growing increasingly distant from New Zealand, Xero’s Drury says he still noticed the halo effect from his celebrity shareholder. “It’s always hard to measure these sorts of things absolutely, but having Peter involved was a massive deal for us.”
Thiel sat for a time on the company’s US advisory board as it sought to break into the world’s biggest market, and provided introductions to new partners and investors in Silicon Valley.
Drury: The Xero founder says Thiel’s involvement was crucial in turning his company into a multi-billion-dollar business.
When Thiel became involved, Xero was loitering on the start-up crossroads to success or failure and had a share price of just $1.50. The company’s stock went on to pass $40, and the company is now one of New Zealand’s largest with a market capitalisation in excess of $5b.
“Look back to 2010. It was an incredibly important time for us and he provided a huge amount of value. And now, at 1.2 million customers, 1800 staff all over the world? That was a key time. We’re incredibly grateful for his support.”
The support for Xero — from which various Valar vehicles would make hundreds of millions of dollars in capital gains as the share price surged — is the most tangible legacy of Citizen Thiel.
Re-reading Thiel’s letter today, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems other non-binding claims made during his bid for citizenship are less fulfilled. Valar Ventures has been inactive in this country for years. Its New Zealand website resembles digital tumbleweed. The Auckland technology incubator never eventuated. Thiel’s touted involvement with the San Francisco landing pad for Kiwi companies reportedly ended once his three-year sponsorship deal expired in 2013.
The Herald could find no other charitable giving by Thiel in New Zealand since that $1m earthquake appeal donation and, given the opportunity to provide details, Thiel’s representatives did not respond.
And in hindsight, that million-dollar donation doesn’t seem entirely selfless. It occurred while officials were mulling Thiel’s application, and the application explained the donation in such a way to avoid it being seen as an attempt to influence decision making.
Thiel: A speech at Auckland University in 2011 remains the sole public appearance Thiel has made in New Zealand.
“Our client has been approached on behalf of the Prime Minister to play a role in the offshore initiatives in relation to the Christchurch Earthquake Fund. It is anticipated there will be publicity about this. This has arisen subsequent to the original application, such that its context is unique to the circumstances. Our client was anxious to avoid it being considered in any manner relative to the merits of this application,” his lawyers wrote in March 2011.
A month later that anticipated publicity for the donation did indeed occur, the result of self-promotion by proxy. Wide local coverage of this selfless act of charity was triggered by a press release: From Bell Gully on Thiel’s behalf.
And claims Thiel would use citizenship to act as an ambassador-at-large seem like mere pillow talk. In a widely reported interview with Business Insider, Thiel described New Zealand as a “utopia”. This interview also occurred during the citizenship application process, and Bell Gully quickly forwarded this clipping to Internal Affairs officials.
The Herald has been unable to find any public statements by Thiel promoting New Zealand since.
Tim Hunter, columnist for National Business Review, noted in February that Thiel and Valar had been distant from these shores in recent years.
“Looking back, it seems Mr Thiel’s love affair with New Zealand is less intense that it was when he was seeking citizenship,” Hunter wrote.
Even New Zealand’s Ombudsman, the statutory neutral arbiter for making decisions on government information, seemed perplexed about the case when compelling Internal Affairs to confirm Thiel had been in the country only 12 days in the qualifying period prior to being awarded citizenship.
“In Mr Thiel’s case, there had been and continued to be public disquiet that the minister granted him citizenship in circumstances where his connection to New Zealand was not publicly known and, even in hindsight, was not obvious.”
PART FOUR: BOLTHOLE
News of Thiel’s surprise citizenship — overnight he became New Zealand’s second-richest man — came as his profile in the United States reached its zenith.
In January 2017, Thiel was serving on newly elected President Trump’s transition team, after having been an early backer of the outsider candidate. He’d spoken at the Republican Convention and donated $1.5m to Trump’s campaign, with the biggest cheque coming during the candidacy’s lowest ebb — in the days after the release of the infamous Access Hollywood “Grab ’em by the pussy” tape.
Trump connection: Thiel’s support for Trump continued after the election, including organising a summit of tech leaders during which he was seated next to the president-elect.
His move into mainstream politics — having previously backed fringe libertarian candidates — caught those who knew him both here and in the United States by surprise. “We were all surprised that he was so into Trump. But it was consistent with his contrarian and small government point-of-view,” says Xero’s Drury.
Hard news about the extent of Thiel’s involvement with the Trump administration has been hard to come by.
In lieu of Thiel talking, fevered rumours have swirled in the American media about what role he plays in United States politics. He’s been variously reported: having soured on Trump; being considered by Trump as a candidate for the Supreme Court, intelligence director or ambassador to Germany; being suddenly concerned about technology company monopolies; and running for Governor of California.
But as Drury notes, despite the reports, there’s been little resulting evidence to underlie the above claims. Thiel is neither Trump’s man in Berlin nor suddenly seeking to regulate the likes of Facebook (of which he remains a director).
“He’s been relatively quiet since all of that [the US election]. I keep a really close eye on that stuff, and he don’t seem around that too much anymore.”
In a twist, Thiel also may have been ghosted — a slang term for the practice of ending a personal relationship by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication — himself. Michael Wolff’s explosive book Fire and Fury has him telling a fellow billionaire that, despite being forewarned Trump was prone to outrageous flattery and hollow promises, he’d taken the bait and now found himself on the outer.
Awkward: A summit meeting was notable for a strange hand-clasping between Trump and Thiel, with Thiel later saying he wondered, “I hope this doesn’t look too weird on TV".
“He absolutely was certain of Trump’s sincerity when he said they’d be friends for life — only to basically never hear from him again or have his calls returned,” Wolff writes of Thiel.
His sudden elevation to the centre of politics in the United States occurred as Thiel appeared to be busy trimming his remaining business exposure to New Zealand.
In October 2016 he activated the buyout clause in his NZVIF partnership — requesting his public partners keep this news secret — seeing him book a gain conservatively estimated at $30m from his contribution of $6.75m, while NZVIF was left barely breaking even.
The clause had been a feature of all NZVIF deals, and its original purpose to was to encourage new local venture-capital firms to invest in nascent start-ups. Its use by Valar — a savvy international operator which effectively went all-in on a single listed company — caused some concerns within the Government over what exactly it had got itself into.
A 2014 government-commissioned report into NZVIF said the deal with Thiel “creates some difficult optics where, in the Valar Ventures example, the taxpayer is offering an American billionaire a loan at less-than-market rates”.
The buyout led to finger-pointing in Parliament over who was accountable for the one-sided deal, and has cast serious doubts over the future of the fund as whole.
But Thiel wasn’t done cutting his local links. In the middle of 2017 he cashed out of his flagship New Zealand investment in Xero, with Crunchbase now listing the company among Valar’s exits. According to available records, Thiel's only remaining local equity investments of note are small — recent valuations put it as worth a few million — stakes in Vend and e-reader technology creator Booktrack.
Drury sees Thiel’s subsequent ghosting as more a lack of opportunities than any misrepresentation. Despite boosters, with only four million people the New Zealand economy is on par with a mid-sized city internationally and our technology industry is nascent.
“The reality is they ran out of investable companies,” says Drury. The NZVIF fund, with its lucrative subsidy, being only half-subscribed by the time it was wound up, lends some support to this hypothesis.
The Founders Paradox: An art installation by Simon Denny using the medium of board games to portray Thiel as heroically trying to free himself from democratic rules. Thiel visited the exhibition in December 2017.
A flying visit by Thiel to New Zealand in December to visit an Auckland gallery gives some credence to an alternate explanation. The venue, on Karangahape Rd, was home to The Founders Paradox, the latest work by artist Simon Denny, with the ideas of Thiel as a central focus.
According to art critic Anthony Byrt’s notes accompanying the exhibit, Thiel’s hardcore libertarian and Lord of the Rings-inspired world-building fantasies — along with his position at the apex of the technology ecosphere — have seen him become “one of the most influential thinkers in the world”.
(Asked by another gallery visitor what he thought of the exhibition — including a large rendering of himself as a blue-skinned knight fighting the forces of fair elections and democracy — Thiel reportedly said: “It’s actually a work of phenomenal detail.”)
Denny’s work paints New Zealand as a stepping stone — and safe haven — for powerful technologists seeking to escape government limits on human activity.
A crude description of this attraction for New Zealand came last year in The New Yorker where Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn (and a member of the so-called PayPal mafia) said the country had become shorthand for apocalypse insurance in Silicon Valley.
Boltholes: Fellow PayPal founder Reid Hoffman has described New Zealand as a preferred hedge for Silicon Valley tycoons concerned about the collapse of the United States.
“Saying you’re ‘buying a house in New Zealand’ is kind of a ‘wink, wink, say no more’,” Hoffman says.
Drury says this trend started after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the US and hasn’t slowed, and considers Thiel as part of it.
No other Silicon Valley hedger has quite gone to the length of Thiel, however. Internal Affairs figures show the libertarian internet tycoon is the only businessman in at least the past six years to have secured citizenship despite neither living nor intending to live here.
Drury is aware of the controversy his one-time shareholder has caused, but says the episode was worth it.
“So, maybe we were all a little starstruck back then.” he concedes.
“My view is these people are net contributors, even though they’re not here all the time. I sort of joke, ‘If you can give me a 10-pack of passports, let me flick ’em around’.”
Dunne, however, is unimpressed by Drury’s enthusiasm, saying the Thiel episode raises issues about both how citizenship was obtained and how much the country values its passport.
“It’s a transparency issue,” he says.
“As far as I can tell, having been granted citizenship, Mr Thiel has been conspicuously absent ever since.”
Thiel’s presence in recent years appears to have been primarily related to real estate. An unexpected quirk in the tale of Citizen Thiel is how, despite his reputation as an investor with a Midas touch, he seems to be one of the few people to lose money in New Zealand’s recent frothy real estate market.
In 2011 he bought a striking four-bedroom Queenstown holiday home constructed with Swiss granite and known locally as the “Plasma Screen”, due to its expansive windows, for $4.8m.
Six years after he purchased the house, the local council assigned it a capital valuation of only $2.5m. Thiel similarly lost $200,000 on a Parnell property he bought in 2010 and sold two years later.
The value of the land that brought him to public attention in New Zealand — a 193ha block of former Crown leasehold farmland on the shores of Lake Wanaka — is also intriguing.
Bought by Thiel for $13.5m in late 2015, the previous owners had tried — and failed — over the previous decade to subdivide the section. Council planners said the site was classed as an “outstanding natural landscape” and it was unlikely they would approve consents for any more than the single building already present.
Real estate agent Graham Wall told the local paper while the land itself — rolling scrub hills — wouldn’t seem out of place on the Desert Road, Thiel was immediately sold on its isolation.
“You turn up there with a jaded billionaire from San Francisco and it’s, ‘Oh my God, I could have a house here and not see anything except lakes and mountains — the best thing on Earth and for $10m!’”
For now council records show this land appears to be being banked. In the two years since Thiel made his purchase, no resource or building consent applications have been filed.
Exactly what is intended for the land at Damper Bay is unknown, but Thiel has built at least one physical bolthole in this country.
Plans for Thiel's house in Queenstown, including new panic room.
According to building consent records, his Queenstown Plasma Screen holiday home last year suffered a serious fire, causing more than $500,000 in damage. Building consents for the repairs filed with the Queenstown Lakes District Council in May show Thiel took this opportunity to rebuild and repurpose a walk-in closet.
Plans now describe this nook as a panic room.
Trustworthy Freedom Fighter
Joined: 25 Nov 2017
|Posted: Sat Feb 10, 2018 7:06 am Post subject:
|I suspect this was all about setting up their new world order's Big Brother facility and network in New Zealand.
Joined: 30 Aug 2008
|Posted: Sun Feb 25, 2018 11:17 pm Post subject:
|Why Silicon Valley billionaires are prepping for the apocalypse in New Zealand
How an extreme libertarian tract predicting the collapse of liberal democracies – written by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s father – inspired the likes of Peter Thiel to buy up property across the Pacific
by Mark O'Connell
Thu 15 Feb 2018 06.00 GMT Last modified on Fri 16 Feb 2018
If you’re interested in the end of the world, you’re interested in New Zealand. If you’re interested in how our current cultural anxieties – climate catastrophe, decline of transatlantic political orders, resurgent nuclear terror – manifest themselves in apocalyptic visions, you’re interested in the place occupied by this distant archipelago of apparent peace and stability against the roiling unease of the day.
If you’re interested in the end of the world, you would have been interested, soon after Donald Trump’s election as US president, to read a New York Times headline stating that Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist who co-founded PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook, considered New Zealand to be “the Future”. Because if you are in any serious way concerned about the future, you’re also concerned about Thiel, a canary in capitalism’s coal mine who also happens to have profited lavishly from his stake in the mining concern itself.
Thiel is in one sense a caricature of outsized villainy: he was the only major Silicon Valley figure to put his weight behind the Trump presidential campaign; he vengefully bankrupted a website because he didn’t like how they wrote about him; he is known for his public musings about the incompatibility of freedom and democracy, and for expressing interest – as though enthusiastically pursuing the clunkiest possible metaphor for capitalism at its most vampiric – in a therapy involving transfusions of blood from young people as a potential means of reversing the ageing process. But in another, deeper sense, he is pure symbol: less a person than a shell company for a diversified portfolio of anxieties about the future, a human emblem of the moral vortex at the centre of the market.
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It was in 2011 that Thiel declared he’d found “no other country that aligns more with my view of the future than New Zealand”. The claim was made as part of an application for citizenship; the application was swiftly granted, though it remained a secret for a further six years. In 2016, Sam Altman, one of Silicon Valley’s most influential entrepreneurs, revealed to the New Yorker that he had an arrangement with Thiel whereby in the eventuality of some kind of systemic collapse scenario – synthetic virus breakout, rampaging AI, resource war between nuclear-armed states, so forth – they both get on a private jet and fly to a property Thiel owns in New Zealand. (The plan from this point, you’d have to assume, was to sit out the collapse of civilisation before re-emerging to provide seed-funding for, say, the insect-based protein sludge market.)
In the immediate wake of that Altman revelation, Matt Nippert, a reporter for the New Zealand Herald, began looking into the question of how exactly Thiel had come into possession of this apocalypse retreat, a 477-acre former sheep station in the South Island – the larger, more sparsely populated of the country’s two major landmasses. Foreigners looking to purchase significant amounts of New Zealand land typically have to pass through a stringent government vetting process. In Thiel’s case, Nippert learned, no such process had been necessary, because he was already a citizen of New Zealand, despite having spent no more than 12 days in the country up to that point, and having not been seen in the place since. He didn’t even need to travel to New Zealand to have his citizenship conferred, it turned out: the deal was sealed in a private ceremony at a consulate handily located in Santa Monica.
‘Less a person than a shell company for a diversified portfolio of anxieties about the future’ … Peter Thiel. Photograph: VCG/Getty
When Nippert broke the story, there was a major public scandal over the question of whether a foreign billionaire should be able to effectively purchase citizenship. As part of his application, Thiel had agreed to invest in New Zealand tech startups, and had implied that he would use his new status as a naturalised Kiwi to promote the country’s business interests abroad. But the focus internationally was on why Thiel might have wanted to own a chunk of New Zealand roughly the size of lower Manhattan in the first place. And the overwhelming suspicion was that he was looking for a rampart to which he could retreat in the event of outright civilisational collapse.
Because this is the role that New Zealand now plays in our unfurling cultural fever dream: an island haven amid a rising tide of apocalyptic unease. According to the country’s Department of Internal Affairs, in the two days following the 2016 election the number of Americans who visited its 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. In particular, New Zealand has come to be seen as a bolthole of choice for Silicon Valley’s tech elite.
In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, the theme of American plutocrats preparing for the apocalypse was impossible to avoid. The week after the inauguration, the New Yorker ran another piece about the super-rich who were making preparations for a grand civilisational crackup; speaking of New Zealand as a “favored refuge in the event of a cataclysm”, billionaire LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, a former colleague of Thiel’s at PayPal, claimed that “saying you’re ‘buying a house in New Zealand’ is kind of a wink, wink, say no more”.
Everyone is always saying these days that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Everyone is always saying it, in my view, because it’s obviously true. The perception, paranoid or otherwise, that billionaires are preparing for a coming civilisational collapse seems a literal manifestation of this axiom. Those who are saved, in the end, will be those who can afford the premium of salvation. And New Zealand, the furthest place from anywhere, is in this narrative a kind of new Ararat: a place of shelter from the coming flood.
Early last summer, just as my interests in the topics of civilisational collapse and Peter Thiel were beginning to converge into a single obsession, I received out of the blue an email from a New Zealand art critic named Anthony Byrt. If I wanted to understand the extreme ideology that underpinned Thiel’s attraction to New Zealand, he insisted, I needed to understand an obscure libertarian manifesto called The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State. It was published in 1997, and in recent years something of a minor cult has grown up around it in the tech world, largely as a result of Thiel’s citing it as the book he is most influenced by. (Other prominent boosters include Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, and Balaji Srinivasan, the entrepreneur best known for advocating Silicon Valley’s complete secession from the US to form its own corporate city-state.)
The Sovereign Individual’s co-authors are James Dale Davidson, a private investor who specialises in advising the rich on how to profit from economic catastrophe, and the late William Rees-Mogg, long-serving editor of the Times. (One other notable aspect of Lord Rees-Mogg’s varied legacy is his own son, the Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg – a hastily sketched caricature of an Old Etonian, who is as beloved of Britain’s ultra-reactionary pro-Brexit right as he is loathed by the left.)
The Sovereign Individual book cover
I was intrigued by Byrt’s description of the book as a kind of master key to the relationship between New Zealand and the techno-libertarians of Silicon Valley. Reluctant to enrich Davidson or the Rees-Mogg estate any further, I bought a used edition online, the musty pages of which were here and there smeared with the desiccated snot of whatever nose-picking libertarian preceded me.
It presents a bleak vista of a post-democratic future. Amid a thicket of analogies to the medieval collapse of feudal power structures, the book also managed, a decade before the invention of bitcoin, to make some impressively accurate predictions about the advent of online economies and cryptocurrencies.
The book’s 400-odd pages of near-hysterical orotundity can roughly be broken down into the following sequence of propositions:
1) The democratic nation-state basically operates like a criminal cartel, forcing honest citizens to surrender large portions of their wealth to pay for stuff like roads and hospitals and schools.
2) The rise of the internet, and the advent of cryptocurrencies, will make it impossible for governments to intervene in private transactions and to tax incomes, thereby liberating individuals from the political protection racket of democracy.
3) The state will consequently become obsolete as a political entity.
4) Out of this wreckage will emerge a new global dispensation, in which a “cognitive elite” will rise to power and influence, as a class of sovereign individuals “commanding vastly greater resources” who will no longer be subject to the power of nation-states and will redesign governments to suit their ends.
The Sovereign Individual is, in the most literal of senses, an apocalyptic text. Davidson and Rees-Mogg present an explicitly millenarian vision of the near future: the collapse of old orders, the rising of a new world. Liberal democracies will die out, and be replaced by loose confederations of corporate city-states. Western civilisation in its current form, they insist, will end with the millennium. “The new Sovereign Individual,” they write, “will operate like the gods of myth in the same physical environment as the ordinary, subject citizen, but in a separate realm politically.” It’s impossible to overstate the darkness and extremity of the book’s predictions of capitalism’s future; to read it is to be continually reminded that the dystopia of your darkest insomniac imaginings is almost always someone else’s dream of a new utopian dawn.
Davidson and Rees-Mogg identified New Zealand as an ideal location for this new class of sovereign individuals, as a “domicile of choice for wealth creation in the Information Age”. Byrt, who drew my attention to these passages, had even turned up evidence of a property deal in the mid-1990s in which a giant sheep station at the southern tip of the North Island was purchased by a conglomerate whose major shareholders included Davidson and Rees-Mogg. Also in on the deal was one Roger Douglas, the former Labour finance minister who had presided over a radical restructuring of New Zealand economy along neoliberal lines in the 1980s. (This period of so-called “Rogernomics”, Byrt told me – the selling off of state assets, slashing of welfare, deregulation of financial markets – created the political conditions that had made the country such an attractive prospect for wealthy Americans.)
Thiel’s interest in New Zealand was certainly fuelled by his JRR Tolkien obsession: this was a man who had named at least five of his companies in reference to The Lord of the Rings, and fantasised as a teenager about playing chess against a robot that could discuss the books. It was a matter, too, of the country’s abundance of clean water and the convenience of overnight flights from California. But it was also inseparable from a particular strand of apocalyptic techno-capitalism. To read The Sovereign Individual was to see this ideology laid bare: these people, the self-appointed “cognitive elite”, were content to see the unravelling of the world as long as they could carry on creating wealth in the end times.
New Zealand as Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring.
New Zealand as Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. Photograph: Everett/Rex
I was struck by how strange and disquieting it must have been for a New Zealander to see their own country refracted through this strange apocalyptic lens. There was certainly an ambient awareness that the tech world elite had developed an odd interest in the country as an ideal end-times bolthole; it would have been difficult, at any rate, to ignore the recent cascade of articles about Thiel acquiring citizenship, and the apocalyptic implications of same. But there seemed to have been basically zero discussion of the frankly alarming ideological dimension of it all.
It was just this ideological dimension, as it happened, that was the focus of a project Byrt himself had recently got involved in, a new exhibition by the artist Simon Denny. Denny, a significant figure in the international art scene, was originally from Auckland, but has lived for some years in Berlin. Byrt described him as both “kind of a genius” and “the poster-boy for post-internet art, whatever that is”; he characterised his own role in the project with Denny as an amalgamation of researcher, journalist and “investigative philosopher, following the trail of ideas and ideologies”.
The exhibition was called The Founder’s Paradox, a name that came from the title of one of the chapters in Thiel’s 2014 book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. Together with the long and intricately detailed catalogue essay Byrt was writing to accompany it, the show was a reckoning with the future that Silicon Valley techno-libertarians like Thiel wanted to build, and with New Zealand’s place in that future.
These were questions I too was eager to reckon with. Which is to say that I myself was interested – helplessly, morbidly – in the end of the world, and that I was therefore interested in New Zealand. And so I decided to go there, to see for myself the land that Thiel had apparently set aside for the collapse of civilisation: a place that would become for me a kind of labyrinth, and whose owner I was already beginning to mythologise as the monster at its centre.
Within about an hour of arriving in Auckland, I was as close to catatonic from fatigue as made no difference, and staring into the maw of a volcano. I was standing next to Byrt, who’d picked me up from the airport and, in a gesture I would come to understand as quintessentially Kiwi, dragged me directly up the side of a volcano. This particular volcano, Mount Eden, was a fairly domesticated specimen, around which was spread one of the more affluent suburbs of Auckland – the only city in the world, I learned, built on a technically still-active volcanic field.
I was a little out of breath from the climb and, having just emerged in the southern hemisphere from a Dublin November, sweating liberally in the relative heat of the early summer morning. I was also experiencing near-psychotropic levels of jetlag. I must have looked a bit off, because Byrt – a bearded, hoodied and baseball-capped man in his late 30s – offered a cheerful apology for playing the volcano card so early in the proceedings.
“I probably should have eased you into it, mate” he chuckled. “But I thought it’d be good to get a view of the city before breakfast.”
The view of Auckland and its surrounding islands was indeed ravishing – though in retrospect, it was no more ravishing than any of the countless other views I would wind up getting ravished by over the next 10 days. That, famously, is the whole point of New Zealand: if you don’t like getting ravished by views, you have no business in the place; to travel there is to give implicit consent to being hustled left, right and centre into states of aesthetic rapture.
A view of Auckland New Zealand from Mount Eden.
A view of Auckland from Mount Eden. Photograph: Alamy
“Plus I’ve been in the country mere minutes,” I said, “and I’ve already got a perfect visual metaphor for the fragility of civilisation in the bag.”
I was referring here to the pleasingly surreal spectacle of a volcanic crater overlaid with a surface of neatly manicured grass. (I jotted this observation down in my notebook, feeling as I did so a smug infusion of virtue about getting some literary non-fiction squared away before even dropping my bags off at the hotel. “Volcano with lawn over it,” I scrawled. “Visual manifestation of thematic motif: Civ as thin membrane stretched over chaos.”)
I remarked on the strangeness of all these Silicon Valley geniuses supposedly apocalypse-proofing themselves by buying up land down here right on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the horseshoe curve of geological fault lines that stretches upward from the western flank of the Americas, back down along the eastern coasts of Russia and Japan and on into the South Pacific.
“Yeah,” said Byrt, “but some of them are buying farms and sheep stations pretty far inland. Tsunamis aren’t going to be a big issue there. And what they’re after is space, and clean water. Two things we’ve got a lot of down here.”
The following day, I went to the gallery in downtown Auckland to take a look at The Founder’s Paradox. Denny, a neat and droll man in his mid-30s, talked me through the conceptual framework. It was structured around games – in theory playable, but in practice encountered as sculptures – representing two different kinds of political vision for New Zealand’s future. The bright and airy ground floor space was filled with tactile, bodily game-sculptures, riffs on Jenga and Operation and Twister. These works, incorporating collaborative and spontaneous ideas of play, were informed by a recent book called The New Zealand Project by a young leftwing thinker named Max Harris, which explored a humane, collectivist politics influenced by Māori beliefs about society.
Down in the low-ceilinged, dungeon-like basement was a set of sculptures based around an entirely different understanding of play, more rule-bound and cerebral. These were based on the kind of strategy-based role-playing games particularly beloved of Silicon Valley tech types, and representing a Thielian vision of the country’s future. The psychological effect of this spatial dimension of the show was immediate: upstairs, you could breathe, you could see things clearly, whereas to walk downstairs was to feel oppressed by low ceilings, by an absence of natural light, by the darkness of the geek-apocalypticism captured in Denny’s elaborate sculptures.
This was a world Denny himself knew intimately. And what was strangest and most unnerving about his art was the sense that he was allowing us to see this world not from the outside in, but from the inside out. Over beers in Byrt’s kitchen the previous night, Denny had told me about a dinner party he had been to in San Francisco earlier that year, at the home of a techie acquaintance, where he had been seated next to Curtis Yarvin, founder of the Thiel-funded computing platform Urbit. As anyone who takes an unhealthy interest in the weirder recesses of the online far-right is aware, Yarvin is more widely known as the blogger Mencius Moldbug, the intellectual progenitor of Neoreaction, an antidemocratic movement that advocates for a kind of white-nationalist oligarchic neofeudalism – rule by and for a self-proclaimed cognitive elite – and which has found a small but influential constituency in Silicon Valley. It was clear that Denny was deeply unsettled by Yarvin’s brand of nerd autocracy, but equally clear that breaking bread with him was in itself no great discomfort.
The Founder’s Paradox, a board game by artist Simon Denny
‘A Thielian vision of the country’s future’ … The Founder’s Paradox, a board game by artist Simon Denny. Photograph: Simon Denny/Michael Lett Gallery
Beneath all the intricacy and detail of its world-building, The Founder’s Paradox was clearly animated by an uneasy fascination with the utopian future imagined by the techno-libertarians of Silicon Valley, and with New Zealand’s role in that future. The exhibition’s centrepiece was a tabletop strategy game called Founders, which drew heavily on the aesthetic – as well as the explicitly colonialist language and objectives – of Settlers of Catan, a cult multiplayer strategy board game. The aim of Founders, clarified by the accompanying text and by the piece’s lurid illustrations, was not simply to evade the apocalypse, but to prosper from it. First you acquired land in New Zealand, with its rich resources and clean air, away from the chaos and ecological devastation gripping the rest of the world. Next you moved on to seasteading, the libertarian ideal of constructing manmade islands in international waters; on these floating utopian micro-states, wealthy tech innovators would be free to go about their business without interference from democratic governments. (Thiel was an early investor in, and advocate of, the seasteading movement, though his interest has waned in recent years.) Then you mined the moon for its ore and other resources, before moving on to colonise Mars. This last level of the game reflected the current preferred futurist fantasy, most famously advanced by Thiel’s former PayPal colleague Elon Musk, with his dream of fleeing a dying planet Earth for privately owned colonies on Mars.
The influence of the Sovereign Individual, and of Byrt’s obsession with it, was all over the show. It was a detailed mapping of a possible future, in all its highly sophisticated barbarism. It was a utopian dream that appeared, in all its garish detail and specificity, as the nightmare vision of a world to come.
Thiel himself had spoken publicly of New Zealand as a “utopia”, during the period in 2011 when he was manoeuvring for citizenship, investing in various local startups under a venture capital fund called Valar Ventures. (I hardly need to tell you that Valar is another Tolkien reference.) 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. In a Vanity Fair article about his role as adviser to Trump’s campaign, a friend was quoted as saying that “Thiel has said to me directly and repeatedly that he wanted to have his own country”, adding that he had even gone so far as to price up the prospect at somewhere around $100bn.
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”.
Donald Trump and Peter Thiel at Trump Tower in December 2016.
Donald Trump and Peter Thiel at Trump Tower in December 2016. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty
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.”
Given her Māori heritage, Quince was particularly attuned to the colonial resonances of the more recent language around New Zealand as both an apocalyptic retreat and a utopian space for American wealth and ingenuity.
“I find it incredibly offensive,” she said. “Thiel got citizenship after spending 12 days in this country, and I don’t know if he’s even aware that Māori exist. 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.”
Quince’s view was by no means the norm. New Zealanders tend to be more flattered than troubled by the interest of Silicon Valley tech gurus in their country. It’s received by and large as a signal that the tyranny of distance – the extreme antipodean remoteness that has shaped the country’s sense of itself since colonial times – has finally been toppled by the liberating forces of technology and economic globalisation.
“It’s very appealing,” the political scientist Peter Skilling told me, “these entrepreneurs saying nice things about us. We’re like a cat having its tummy rubbed. If Silicon Valley types are welcomed here, it’s not because we’re particularly susceptible to libertarian ideas; it’s because we are complacent and naive.”
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 37-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. This was largely the doing of Winston Peters, a nationalist of Māori descent whose New Zealand First party held the balance of power, and was strongly in favour of tightening regulations of foreign ownership. When I read that Ardern had named Peters as her deputy prime minister, I was surprised to recognise the name – from, of all places, The Sovereign Individual, where Davidson and Rees-Mogg had singled him out for weirdly personal abuse as an arch-enemy of the rising cognitive elite, referring to him as a “reactionary loser” and “demagogue” who would “gladly thwart the prospects for long-term prosperity just to prevent individuals from declaring their independence of politics”.
Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand.
Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images
During my time in New Zealand, Ardern was everywhere: in the papers, on television, in every other conversation. On our way to Queenstown in the South Island, to see for ourselves the site of Thiel’s apocalyptic bolthole, Byrt and I were in the security line at Auckland airport when a woman of about our age, smartly dressed and accompanied by a cluster of serious-looking men, glanced in our direction as she was conveyed quickly along the express lane. She was talking on her phone, but looked towards us and waved at Byrt, smiling broadly in happy recognition.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“Jacinda,” he said.
“You know her?”
“We know quite a lot of the same people. We met for a drink a couple of times back when she was Labour’s arts spokesperson.”
“Well yeah,” he laughed, “there’s only so many of us.”
“The endgame for Thiel is essentially The Sovereign Individual,” said Byrt. He was driving the rental car, allowing me to fully devote my resources to the ongoing cultivation of aesthetic rapture (mountains, lakes, so forth). “And the bottom line for me,” he said, “is that I don’t want my son to grow up in that future.”
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. The term “psychogeography” was cautiously invoked, and with only the lightest of ironic inflections.
“The thing about Thiel is he’s the monster at the heart of the labyrinth,” said Byrt.
“He’s the white whale,” I suggested, getting into the literary spirit of the enterprise.
Byrt’s obsession with Thiel occupied a kind of Melvillean register, yearned toward a mythic scale. It coloured his perception of reality. 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. Thiel’s Tolkien fixation was itself a fixation for Byrt: together with the extreme libertarianism of The Sovereign Individual, he was convinced that it lay beneath Thiel’s continued interest in New Zealand.
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. In his citizenship application, he had pledged his commitment to devote “a significant amount of time and resources to the people and businesses of New Zealand”. 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.
In a cafe in Queenstown, about an hour’s drive from Thiel’s estate, Byrt and I met a man to whom a wealthy acquaintance of Byrt’s had introduced us. 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. (“Once you start pissing in the hand basin, where are you gonna wash your face?” as he put to me, in what I assumed was a purely rhetorical formulation.) He told us of one wealthy American of his acquaintance, “pretty left-of-centre”, who had bought land down here to allay his apocalyptic fears in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election. Another couple he knew of, a pair of bitcoin billionaires, had bought a large lakeside estate on which they were constructing a gigantic bunker.
This was the first I’d heard since coming here of an actual bunker being built. 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. Over coffee at his golf club near Queenstown, Terry Spice, a London-born luxury property specialist who had recently sold a large estate abutting the Thiel property on Lake Wanaka, said he felt Thiel had highlighted internationally that the country was “a safe haven, and a legacy asset”. He himself had sold land to one very wealthy American client who had called him on the night of the presidential election. “This guy couldn’t believe what was happening. He wanted to secure something right away.” But on the whole, he insisted, this kind of apocalyptically motivated buyer represented a vanishingly small proportion of the market.
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.
“Look,” he said, “it might be one strand in terms of what’s motivating them to buy here. But in my experience it’s never been the overriding reason. It’s much more of a positive thing. 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. 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.
In 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. Nippert had given us the address; we found it easily enough, not far from the centre of town, and recognised it right away from one of the paintings in The Founder’s Paradox. It was the sort of house a Bond villain might build if for some reason he’d been forced to move to the suburbs. 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. “No idea, mate,” they said. They were just doing some renovation on contract. There’d been a fire in the place a while back, apparently. Nothing sinister, just wiring.
Lake Wanaka, in New Zealand’s South Island
Lake Wanaka, in New Zealand’s South Island. Photograph: Stuart Black/Robert Harding/Rex/Shutterstock
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. It got rockier and more mountainous the further we pursued it, and by the time we knew for certain we were on Thiel’s property, I was so hot and exhausted that all I could think to do was plunge into the lake to cool off. 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. I swam out further into what I had come to think of as Thiel’s apocalypse lake and, submerging my face, I drank so deeply that Anthony joked he could see the water level plunging downward by degrees. In truth, I drank well beyond the point of quenching any literal thirst; in a way that felt absurd and juvenile, and also weirdly and sincerely satisfying, I was drinking apocalypse water, symbolically reclaiming it for the 99%. If in that moment I could have drained Lake Wanaka just to **** up Thiel’s end-of-the-world contingency plan, I might well have done so.
I suggested I might take a rock, a piece of the place to bring home and keep on my desk, but Byrt warned me that to do so would be a transgression of the Māori understanding of the land’s communal sacredness. 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.
“There you have it,” said Byrt. “Eyeball evidence that Thiel is stockpiling hay for the collapse of civilisation.” I wish to state categorically that we did not steal so much as a single straw from that barn.
We had made it to the centre of the labyrinth, but it was elsewhere in the end that the monster materialised. In early December, a couple of weeks after I’d left the country, Max Harris, the young Kiwi author whose book Denny and Byrt had used as a counterpoint to Thiel’s ideas, was home for Christmas, and went along to the gallery to see the exhibition.
Down in the basement, in the central chamber – with its low ceilings, its iron vault door, its Führerbunkerishly oppressive vibe – Harris encountered, staring intently downward into the glass case containing the Founders game, a man in shorts and a blue polo shirt, surrounded by a group of younger men, likewise polo-shirted. 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 2011, 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. Harris asked the man what he thought of the exhibition, and the man paused a long time before saying that it was “actually a work of phenomenal detail”. 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. He did, and Thiel responded quickly; he’d been intrigued by what he had seen, but claimed to be a little disturbed by how dark his cyber-libertarianism appeared when refracted through the lens of The Founder’s Paradox. In any case, the conversation continued, and they made arrangements to meet on Denny’s next trip to the US.
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Denny was eager to keep talking, if only because he was determined to reach a deeper understanding of Thiel’s vision of the future. 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 it 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. Nippert, in a recent New Zealand Herald article, had published the architect’s plans for the place. Thiel was making some alterations to the master bedroom. He was putting in a panic room.
Main image of Lake Wanaka by Johan Lolos/Rex/Shutterstock
Support for this article was provided by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
Joined: 26 Jul 2006
Location: St. Pauls, Bristol, UK
Trustworthy Freedom Fighter
Joined: 07 Dec 2006
Location: Santa Rosa, California, USA
Trustworthy Freedom Fighter
Joined: 07 Dec 2006
Location: Santa Rosa, California, USA
Trustworthy Freedom Fighter
Joined: 07 Dec 2006
Location: Santa Rosa, California, USA
|Posted: Tue May 22, 2018 11:19 pm Post subject:
|Global Cities High on Elites' Agenda
Pre-meeting releases indicate Bilderbergers want to thwart populism's global advances
Author: Mark Anderson, American Free Press
As the 66th Bilderberg Meeting approaches in Italy June 7-10, the anti-populist “global cities” movement has been moved to the front burner. From papers posted by urban analyst Bruce Katz on the website of the Bilderberg-connected Brookings Institution, to several recent forums featuring Katz and other notables at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA), a major thrust is underway to thwart populist gains across the world by arranging a large network of cities that represents a blend of global and local policies and concepts—often called “glocalism.”
That thrust also is highlighted by the CCGA’s annual Chicago Forum on Global Cities June 6-8, with more in store beyond that. While this writer previously reported that the Global Covenant of Mayors, the Global Parliament of Mayors, and other groupings are integrating major cities to incrementally circumvent national authority on at least some fronts, most of what we’ve heard about so far has been limited to the general framework for the growing global-cities grid.
That framework consists of designations such as “sanctuary cities” for challenging national immigration laws to foster heavy migration and integration; “smart cities,” in which the coming “5G” data-infrastructure upgrade, for example, will enable people, self-driving cars, and even “smart” buildings to communicate with each other to save energy and surveil public movement much more closely; and, among many other names, “green cities,” where mayors take the lead combatting “climate change” and unconstitutionally craft their own foreign policies and diplomatic initiatives toward that end.
Katz, representing Brookings, attended the 2014 Bilderberg gathering in Denmark with then-Mayor of Atlanta Kasim Reed—a prominent smart cities advocate. Katz has since teamed up with former Philadelphia Federal Reserve Board regional chairman Jeremy Nowak to take things to the next level, revealing new details about the specific “machinery” of global cities, particularly in the economic realm.
At an April 23 CCGA presentation, Katz and Nowak introduced their book, The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism. Citing Copenhagen’s City and Port Development Authority as an example that “global cities” can adopt, Katz told the CCGA’s audience, “Basically they’re taking all the assets that the government owns—whether it’s the national government, whether it’s the local government, whether it’s special authorities—and putting [those assets] under the aegis of one corporation.”
Such a “publicly owned and privately driven” entity would be chaired by the mayor. The public assets (water systems, electrical distribution, etc.) would be placed in a professionally managed portfolio to earn dividends. Katz said for the U.S. to finance the $3 billion in infrastructure upgrades and repairs it reportedly needs, this model is the only game in town, as he sees it. “The model out of Copenhagen, Hamburg, Hong Kong, and Singapore is the model we’re going to have to adopt in the U.S.,” Katz said. “It’s hard to do but what other choice do we have?” He added that while the U.S. lacks this system, it needs to adopt it to “invest in innovation, infrastructure and inclusion.”
To be fair, this model, despite having shades of economic fascism (the merger of corporate and government power, instead of empowering the consumer through ending the debt-based money system, for example) may have some sundry benefits. Copenhagen, Katz observed, developed its subway system “without a kroner of taxes.” He says they were able to finance it “through land sales and land leases.”
However, Katz and Nowak aren’t touting their economic measures (representing “the new lo-calism”) just to improve mass transit or to pretty things up. While calling global cities “the flip side of populism,” the two authors indicated their intent to hang populism in the town square, so to speak, while they devise the details of such cities.
Thus, their CCGA discussion assumed a more adversarial tone when it shifted to populism. In the minds of these authors, populism is a crude credo—chiefly consisting of angry citizens venting their grievances over industrial decline and wage losses due to free trade and other “inevitable” aspects of globalization.
According to this condescension, the hoi pol-loi —while some of their complaints may have substance—should stop seeking scapegoats to blame and kindly adjust themselves to globalization, not the other way around, and drop their nervy tendency to elect populist “strongmen” (Donald Trump or Victor Orban, leader of Hungary), lest these “autocrats” listen to the people, end free trade as we know it and throw the globalists’ “liberal democracy” overboard.
Katz and Nowak, notably, also pointed out that populism can be “left” or “right” and common ground can be found in opposition to free trade and corporatization. However, they stopped short of admitting that this is what the “global class” fears most about populism: It’s a commonsense, grassroots, more consumer- and labor-based worldview that tends to be nationalistic, is typically pro-property rights, and isn’t quite Democrat or Republican. Therefore, it fosters greater public unity behind certain broad issues, liberating ever larger swaths of people from the two-party trap and enabling them to more effectively counter the rigged internationalist system.
Little wonder, then, that the plutocratic caste wants to create a “global cities” grid to quell the populist revolt that’s already led to major right-leaning political gains in Italy, Hungary, Germany, Austria, the U.S. (Trump), and in the UK (the Brexit vote to leave the European Union).
Other relevant recent events included two April 20 CCGA programs: One, “Fascism: A Warning, with former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, lumped populist movements into a virtual-Nazi mold, and “The Retreat from Western Liberalism,” presented by Financial Times’ Washington reporter Edward Luce, cited the populist awakening as a threat to the “liberal” international order. The Times is perennially present at Bilderberg.
As Katz summarized for the CCGA: “Globalism and localism are converging in new ways. It’s not a cyclical issue but a structural shift.” That’s an understatement. And it’ll be interesting to see what may emerge from Bilderberg this year along these lines.
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