The Seasteading Institute

Peter Thiel is looking for paradise in New Zealand. History is against him

The Silicon Valley billionaire and Trump backer Thiel is not the first white man to want to abandon his home in the northern hemisphere for a South Pacific paradise, writes Scott Hamilton

Peter Thiel seems to like New Zealand. In 2011 the billionaire IT investor asked for and very quickly received New Zealand citizenship; later he bought a house in Queenstown and a 477 acre sheep station near Lake Wanaka.

In an essay for the Guardian, Mark O’Connell explains that, like a number of other Silicon Valley billionaires, Thiel fears an apocalypse in the northern hemisphere, and sees New Zealand as a place where he can flee from such a disaster. O’Connell reports that Thiel’s two favourite books are Lord of the Rings and The Sovereign Individual, an anarcho-capitalist tract published 20 years ago by William Rees-Mogg and James Davidson.

Rees-Mogg and Davidson predicted that globalisation and the internet will make the nation state obsolete. As the rich use cryptocurrencies and offshore banks to avoid paying their taxes, health and education systems will become unsustainable, and police and soldiers will go unpaid. Insurrections and wars will follow. But out of the rubble of the old West a new civilisation will emerge, where entrepreneur-kings “operate like the gods of myth’” watched in awe by the ordinary mortals they employ.

Thiel has sometimes expressed the desire to have his own private country. In his application for New Zealand citizenship, he said that “no country aligns more” with his “idea of the future” than ours.

Matt Nippert, the New Zealand Herald journalist who investigated the fast-tracking of Thiel’s citizenship, believes that the billionaire considers this country a bolthole, where he can safely wait out the collapse of civilisation. In 2016, Thiel’s fellow Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sam Altman said that he and Thiel had agreed that, if some disaster overtakes America, they will fly in a private jet to New Zealand, and make for Thiel’s sheep station.

Peter Thiel is typically presented as an innovator, a man whose ideas are as new and as radical as the technology that has made him rich. But Thiel is not the first white man to want to abandon his home in the northern hemisphere for a South Pacific paradise.

As Mark O’Connell points out in his article for the Guardian, the first organised settlements in New Zealand were the work of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, a well-to-do British hustler, who wanted to create a new nation in what he mistakenly imagined to be empty islands.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Engraved by B. Holl from a drawing by A. Wivell in 1823

By the 1860s wealthy Americans already saw the South Pacific as a refuge. When the northern states won the Civil War in 1865, the owners of the south’s big plantations were ruined. The slaves who had sown and picked their cotton and coffee had deserted; their mansions had been gutted or expropriated by northern soldiers. Some Confederates fled to Mexico and Brazil, but others decided to remake their fortunes in Fiji, where no colonial power had yet raised its flag and a large black population was available for enslavement. By the early 1870s Confederate planters had established new plantations on the islands of Viti Levu and Ovalau. They indentured locals at the point of a gun, and imported extra pairs of hands from the Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides.

When King Cakobau, the enfeebled indigenous ruler of part of Fiji, objected to their presence, the Confederates founded a branch of the Ku Klux Klan to terrorise his officials and burn his outposts. By 1874 Cakobau had become so worried by the Confederates that he asked Britain to colonise Fiji. The Union Jack seemed preferable to white hoods and burning crosses.

A century after the Confederates built their dystopia on Fiji, America was again in turmoil, as young people protested the war in Vietnam and blacks fought cops in the ghettoes of big cities. A Dutch-American businessmen named Michael Oliver decided that his adopted homeland was doomed. Oliver founded and funded an organisation called the Phoenix Foundation, and charged it with finding territory for a new anarcho-capitalist nation, where the rebellious minorities and welfare state of sixties America would be absent.

The Phoenix Foundation turned its gaze toward the South Pacific, and discovered an uninhabited atoll between New Zealand and Tonga. South Minerva Reef was big, but it was covered in shallow water, so in 1972 the Foundation purchased a barge, and dumped millions of tonnes of sand in its lagoon. Oliver’s agents raised a blue flag adorned with a flaming torch of liberty on their new island, and proclaimed the Republic of Minerva. The new country’s constitution forbade the levying of taxes, but permitted child pornography. Its notes and coins, which were struck and printed near Oliver’s home in Nevada, featured a portrait of the goddess of Minerva that appeared to be modelled on Ayn Rand.

Michael Oliver never got to visit his utopia. In June 1972 a gunboat arrived at Minerva carrying Tupou IV, the king of Tonga, and a score of soldiers. The republic’s flag was pulled down, and the kingdom’s ensign raised.

The Phoenix Foundation’s next attempt to make a new nation in the South Pacific led to tragedy as well as farce. In the mid-70s Oliver made an alliance with Jimmy Stevens, a religious leader who lived with his followers, who included twenty-three wives, in a jungle clearing on the island of Espiritu Santo. Stevens opposed the Vanua’aku Party, which had been campaigning to turn the Anglo-French colony of New Hebrides into an independent nation called Vanuatu.

Citizen Thiel. Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images

The Phoenix Foundation gave Stevens cash, a radio transmitter, and a flag with a green star on a blue background. In return, the semi-literate Stevens gave his uncertain signature to a series of land deals that purported to put much of Santo in the hands of wealthy American supporters of the Phoenix Foundation. Oliver announced that he had found his utopia, and that anyone wealthy enough to escape the sinking ship of America should settle on the largest island in the New Hebrides.

In 1980, a few weeks before Vanuatu was scheduled to become independent, Sevens and the Phoenix Foundation proclaimed the creation of the Republic of Vemarana, which comprised Santo and the southern island of Tanna. The blue and green flag was raised, and Stevens’ disciples armed themselves with bows and arrows and World War Two rifles salvaged from the bush.

Vanuatu’s first Prime Minister Walter Lini summoned Papua New Guinean troops, who put down the secession in what has become known as the Coconut War. One of Stevens’ scores of children was killed when he tried to run a Papuan blockade armed with his bow and a few arrows. Stevens senior was sent to jail, though Lini allowed him frequent conjugal visits, so that his flock of children continued to grow.

American’s anarcho-capitalists were dismayed by the failures of the Phoenix Foundation, but they have not abandoned the dream of founding new nations in the South Pacific. Instead of eyeing existing territories, they are now planning to create wholly artificial islands in the region. Last year the Seasteading Institute claimed that it would soon build a floating city-state off the coast of French Polynesia. Joe Quirk, the institute’s director, said that seasteading was a “way to escape” the impending demise of Western society.

Like the homesteaders of the nineteenth century American West, the seasteaders seek freedom on a frontier. But any independent island-nation would have to established in international waters, far from the shores of French Polynesia or any other existing state. It was easy for Michael Oliver to make an island on Minerva’s reef; an island in the deep waters of the open Pacific would be a much more difficult and dangerous proposition, and would likely cost many billions of dollars.

If Peter Thiel is intent on establishing a bolthole-utopia in New Zealand, then he should reflect on the fortunes of his predecessors.

It seems to me that there are two reasons why nation-builders like the Phoenix Foundation and the Confederates have failed in the South Pacific. They have wrongly conceived of the region as remote and underpopulated, and they have forgotten about the necessity of a state to the survival of capitalism.

Places like Fiji, Santo, and New Zealand might seem remote and ruritanian to the billionaires of America, but they do not feel this way to their inhabitants. The Pacific is a liquid continent, whose fifty thousand inhabited islands are connected by kinship, trade, and a common history. Not for nothing did the Tongan-Papuan-Fijian anthropologist insist, in a famous essay, that the Pacific was not a sea with islands in it, but rather a “sea of islands”. On Fiji, on Santo, and even on Minerva Reef, the would-be nation-builders soon realised that they were much less isolated than they had hoped.

A Seasteading Institute vision

When they talk about the supposed isolation of New Zealand, Thiel and other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs sound curiously like some of the cultural nationalists who dominated Pakeha literature and art in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Poets like Allen Curnow and Charles Brasch and painters like Colin McCahon empahsised New Zealand’s supposed isolation from the rest of the world, and the alleged loneliness of its people. McCahon lamented that the New Zealand landscape ‘had too few lovers’ and Brasch wrote of ‘empty hills’, and plains that ‘cry for meaning’.

But the isolation of New Zealand was always ideological, not geographical. Curnow and his comrades turned their backs on our Pacific neighbours, and fixated on their distance from their kin in Europe. Now that mass migration from the tropics has made Auckland into a miniature version of the Pacific, we can appreciate the absurdity of the nationalist vision of New Zealand floating in an empty ocean.

But even though notions of New Zealand isolation have died amongst the intelligentsia, they have persisted in the minds of advertisers and tourism operators. Inspired by the success of the Lord of the Rings movies, New Zealand Tourism has spent the last eighteen years running a ‘100% Pure’ campaign, which presents this country as a series of gorgeous and unpopulated landscapes.

In the Rings films and in the posters of the 100% Pure campaign, wrinkles left on hillsides by ancient pa or modern roads are removed digitally, and cameras are aimed away from towns and villages, towards empty river valleys and desolate mountains. It would hardly be surprising if New Zealand had become synonymous, in the minds of Silicon Valley capitalists and many others, with beautiful emptiness.

The anarcho-capitalist settlers have also failed because they have not enjoyed the patronage of a state. Peter Thiel and his comrades may decry the state, but without armies and police forces and laws and bureaucracy capitalism cannot survive, let alone thrive. It was enclosure of the common lands of Europe by soldiers that made the birth of capitalism possible, and the expansion of the system to other continents was achieved only in the shadow of colonial administrations.

Wakefield’s experiments in New Zealand survived because the British Empire was persuaded to annex these islands. Today Silicon Valley depends on the American state for the infrastructure of the internet, for protection from local criminals and foreign cyberterrorists, and for the opening of foreign markets to investment. When Thiel dreams of transcending the nation state he is like a fish dreaming of walking on land. Even the tiny armies of Tonga and Papua New Guinea defeated the Phoenix Foundation. Thiel’s bolthole in New Zealand could be expropriated by a couple of local constables, or a few farmers with hunting rifles.

China is the world’s new superpower, and its steady expansion into the Pacific shows how capitalism and the state still march side by side. Chinese businesses now dominate the economies of Pacific countries like Tonga and Fiji. Chinese diplomats negotiate on these businesses’ behalf, and Beijing’s aid to Pacific nations is dependent on permission for Chinese capital to circulate there. Behind the businessmen and the diplomats looms the largest military in the world. It is China, and not a few eccentric Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, that today poses the real threat to the sovereignty of South Pacific nations.

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