A new book about doomsday heads to the ultimate survival bunker: New Zealand. Steve Braunias talks to author Mark O'Connell.
Irish author Mark O'Connell wanted to see what the end of the world would look like, so he came to New Zealand. A highlight of his new book Notes from an Apocalypse, which examines a range of really terrible responses to doomsday, is the chapter where he spends 10 days in New Zealand in search of a character who fills him with rage and loathing: Peter Thiel, aka Citizen Thiel, the American billionaire famously given citizenship by the Key administration so he could buy land in the South Island with the apparent intention of building a mega-bunker to wait out the coming apocalypse.
O'Connell had a nice time in Auckland. He went to the top of Mt Eden. He had lunch at Nando's in Queen St. He had a beer with Herald sleuth Matt Nippert. Heading south, he went for a bike ride in Wanaka, and swam in the lake. He didn't get anywhere near Thiel. I called him at his home in Dublin, and said, "It was an eventless visit, wasn't it?"
He cheerfully acknowledged this was the case. O'Connell's accent has a light musicality, which makes pleasant listening. It's just as well, because he speaks a lot, rapidly, blatheringly, although it's not just words tumbling out: it's thoughts, connections, metaphors. The chief attraction of his book is an alert mind at work – his examination of end times is endlessly entertaining, also very funny, always inquiring. Nothing much happens in his New Zealand chapter, but he thinks a lot.
He said, "You're right. It's actually a chapter in which nothing actually happens in terms of discovery. I really began with the work that Matt Nippert did, turning up this quite solid information about Thiel and his presence in the country, and his citizenship.
"It took me a really long time to write the piece. Because in retrospect I wasn't sure about what I had. I just had a bunch of interesting encounters with people in New Zealand. I didn't have any concrete evidence about billionaires building bunkers there, but what was really surprising about that piece was that it went quite viral."
The chapter first appeared in the Guardian. He said, "It was the centre of a large amount of discussion at the time. But the response was very strange to me. It was like a response to a different piece. Almost overwhelmingly the response was people were saying, 'Oh, so tech billionaires are buying up land in New Zealand, they know something we don't, it must be the end of the world.' Which is not the claim I was making at all! The piece is responding to that claim, and complicating it. It's an exploration of uncertainty."
He meant uncertainty about end times, and the ways billionaires such as Thiel respond to it. O'Connell sees Thiel as the worst embodiment of capitalism and inequality: "Less an actual person," he writes, "than a shell company for a diversified portfolio of anxieties about the future." His New Zealand chapter refers to a 1997 libertarian manifesto called The Sovereign Individual. Thiel cites it as the book that has most influenced his thinking. It identifies New Zealand as "a domicile of choice for wealth creation" after the collapse of nation-states; new gods, or sovereign individuals, will control vast resources and "redesign governments to meet their own needs". O'Connell writes, "It's impossible to overstate the darkness and extremity of the book's projected future. To read it is to be continually reminded that the dystopia of your darkest imaginings is almost always someone else's dream of a new utopian dream."
Thiel, O'Connell believes, views New Zealand as the ultimate post-apocalyptic survival bunker: "The ark of nation-states, an island haven amid a rising tide of apocalyptic unease." His book also studies Elon Musk, who idealises Mars as a better option for life after annihilation. O'Connell loathes Musk, too. He writes, "I hold Musk in more or less unwavering contempt…He seemed to me to reflect what was most degrading and abject about our time."
I asked, "Do you view Citizen Thiel in much the same way?"
He said, "Inevitably I do put them in the same category."
I asked, "Who is worse?"
He said, "That's a difficult one to answer. My attitude to Musk is a little more ambivalent than towards Thiel. Although I find him in so many ways fundamentally objectionable, and absurd, there's something about Musk that I find quite appealing. He's at least trying to advance some vision of the future. It's not a vision I find appealing but at least people find him inspiring. Whereas Thiel seems to me to be much darker and more straightforward in his villainousness."
What if there was an apocalypse, but we just stayed in bed? Much of 2020 has felt like that. Covid-19, for all its massive disruption, its enduring misery, its accumulation of horrific stats (over 14 million cases and 600,000 deaths), has failed to bring about end times. Life blunders on. The borders are closed, but the pubs are open; wear a mask, don't wear a mask; there are other things to think about, tomorrow is another day. Covid was a fake apocalypse, a close resemblance. It must have been terribly disappointing for doomsday preppers who long for the real thing.
There is a strong element of wish-fulfilment about end times. A sense of anticipation, a keenly felt excitement. In O'Connell's book Notes from an Apocalypse, doomsday is a kind of promised land, a rapture: when the end comes, and chaos descends, those who have prepared for it will finally get the chance to not just survive but to set about creating a new civilisation built in the ashes of nation-states laid to waste by an apocalyptic event (an asteroid, nuclear war, Covid-20 or some other truly devastating pandemic). They have a project. In essence, the project is to reject democracy for the masses, and replace it with comfortably maintained lifestyles – underground, or on another planet – for the very few, a wealthy or armed elite, in a fascist utopia. In quintessence, the project is a creepy little fantasy.
O'Connell's visit to New Zealand – and the conversations he had with people such as art critic Anthony Byrt, The New Zealand Project author Max Harris, and AUT legal scholar Khylee Quince – led to another way of interpreting these fantasies. They were, he realised, a new form of the very thing that had shaped and traumatised New Zealand: colonialism. New frontiers, lands regarded as blank canvasses.
He said, "As I looked into the theme of the apocalypse, and people being obsessed with the end of the world, it became clear to me that colonialism was a big part of this. So much of it is absolutely embedded in yearnings and fantasies about returning to this colonialism moment. The same can be said of Musk, and his idea to colonise Mars.
"I think New Zealand is where it coalesced for me as this subterranean theme of the book. It's a book on the surface about the future and the apocalypse, but at a deeper level it's a book about the past and fantasies about the past, and the way we metabolise those ideas. New Zealand was absolutely crucial in that sense."
Thiel's presence here, he said, was as a colonist. "It became really obvious to me why Thiel's quite slippery presence in the country was so interesting and disturbing to so many people." He writes of meeting Khylee Quince in her AUT office: "In the utopian fantasies of techno-libertarians like Thiel, Quince saw an echo of her country's history. 'Business,' she said, 'got here first.'" Thiel as just another Wakefield.
There is a faintly absurd scene in Notes from an Apocalypse when O'Connell describes having lunch at Nando's and marvelling at "small birds" flitting in and out of the restaurant. He writes, "It was strange, but also strangely wonderful….Nobody seemed to be paying the least bit of attention to these birds treating the inside of Nando's like some kind of aviary…I found this touching in a way I couldn't quite articulate. It had to do, I think, with a sense of New Zealand as…retaining some quality of original innocence."
Obviously he's describing a sparrow, those pests of every café with outdoor tables and open doors. But he can only guess that it's "perhaps a sparrow or a thrush". A thrush! God almighty. It's twice as big as a sparrow and terrified of people; if a thrush ever got inside a café, everyone would pay it considerable attention as the bird tried to escape and inevitably knocked itself senseless against the window.
It's not a hanging offence that he can't tell the difference between a sparrow and a thrush. But sometimes O'Connell is so intent on coming up with interesting thoughts and seeing the big picture that he's blind to the small, actual picture. One chapter of his book is devoted to ogling at doomsday preppers on YouTube videos. Fascinatingly, and possibly insightfully, he thinks of their activities as a clear sign of "masculinity in crisis"; wittily, and possibly accurately, he compares their videos, in which preppers display all the essential items they've hoarded in preparation for the apocalypse, to the phenomena of haul videos, in which teenage girls display all the essential junk they've bought at the mall.
But to dismiss preppers as fools and knaves is to miss their humour and their talent. Certainly a feature of New Zealand preppers is their ingenuity: the Prep NZ online forum is a kind of DIY masterclass, full of detailed and practical advice on how to find things and make them work in the event of some kind of crisis. The tone is good-humoured, and helpful.
They seem like a generally harmless community of good Kiwi jokers, but the dark side is never far away. One post expresses a fear of "a Chinese re-education camp". Another advocates compulsory military training: "1 million people, armed, would make potential invaders think twice." And this: "I'm gonna make sure that all of my family are equipped with extremely bright flashlights (not joking) because these are legal and useful for identifying imminent predators and dazzling them to disorientated. Should that be insufficient, I will of course appeal to the feral's better natures in a kind and loving way."
Always the expectation of an enemy at the gate; always the need to stockpile weapons.
O'Connell acknowledges the prepper's instinct to protect the family. He can see the sense in laying down supplies of dried food, water, fuel, torches, etc. "But they're not preparing for the future," he said. "They're preparing for their fantasies.
"In the American context, so much of these fantasies are around the idea that the individual will no longer be protected by the State. And all of a sudden it's just you and your guns, and you're protecting yourself and your family and your property from minorities. It's a fantasy of white male individualism, and a return to those forms of white male privilege that have been kicked away by feminism and civil rights. In a way, the apocalypse is an idea that speaks to a reactionary sensibility.
"I think it's about desire as well," he continued, the light music of his Irish voice playing down the phone, "It's a libidinous force in some ways…And also there is a sense among so many of these people that civilisation is not only fragile but irretrievably fragile, and a misconceived project. The idea you have to provide for people and that our fates are linked – that seems reprehensible to the likes of Peter Thiel, and the doomsday preppers lower down the scale."
The crisis of Covid-19 continues to unfold. But that first wave of community transmission in New Zealand was beaten back by a Government-led initiative; the State did provide, our fates were linked, and we united as one people under a slogan: "A team of five million." I said to O'Connell, "The mindset that believes only individual states or elites can cope with disaster – it's actually a complete nonsense."
"Absolutely," he said. "That's a truth that exists outside ideology. Any epidemiologist will tell you the exactly same thing: that you can't fight it at the level of the individual or self-interest. It's interesting to compare New Zealand with the US, which is the most obvious example of a radically individualist state. The whole of American culture, or so much of it, anyway, seems predicated on the idea that it's your individual interests that are foremost. And that chicken really seems to be coming home to roost around the virus. A country as radically individualistic as America can't fight the virus on those terms."
I said, "America is a series of chickens coming home to roost. 9/11 was a foreign policy chicken. America is the planet of the chickens."
I was raving about chickens. O'Connell didn't seem to mind; he's familiar with crazy images that serve as metaphors. He said, "I work in a way almost like a sci-fi novelist in terms of finding big overriding metaphors for things that I want to explore. The apocalypse was always a metaphor.
"The book grew out of an intense but also quite vague anxiety about the future, and it was only after a certain amount of thinking about the theme of anxiety that the idea of the apocalypse came into view. The apocalypse is not a real thing. There are people of course who believe we are coming to the end of days or whatever, but what's much more interesting to me is our anxieties and fears and yearnings around the uncertainty of the future, and the way they manifest into these apocalyptic fervours."
A book about end times, published just as the plague came upon all our houses – but it's wrong, he said, for anyone to credit him with prescience. "I'd no idea what was coming," he laughed. "No one did. Even the people who I talked to, the doomsday preppers who are obsessed with the idea of civilisational collapse, they didn't see it coming."
It came. It duly laid waste. It continues to linger – and continues to excite. "As serious as this virus has been," writes a member of NZ Prep on its discussion board, "it has been a wonderful reassurance that we are on the right track."