Peter Thiel is an unusual man with unusual priorities. In 1998, he helped to found Cofinity, an online payments platform, which later morphed into PayPal, a household name now valued at $33 billion. After selling PayPal to eBay for a very tidy sum, he was an early investor in Facebook, and still sits on their board of directors. Thiel is more than just another Silicon Valley billionaire, though, and has spent the last few years becoming a bona fide pop-culture phenomenon.
He came to real prominence when he became the most prominent tech figure to endorse Donald Trump for US President. As a member of Trump’s transition team in January 2017, he told the New York Times that his real fear was that the new president “is going to change everything too little.” Despite speculation that he would be given a post in the Trump administration, Thiel was passed over for employment, and the White House has since stopped returning his calls.
In 2016, Thiel also made headlines when he bankrolled former pro-wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the website Gawker, in which he won a settlement of $115 million, later revised to $31 million, still enough to put the website out of business. (Thiel’s beef with Gawker had its origins in a 2007 blog post in which they outed him as gay.) It later emerged that in 2011 Thiel had hired a group of investigators to find legally actionable stories that could be used against the site.
Thiel has never actually lived in New Zealand, though, and his presence in the country is so rare that it generates headlines when he actually turns up. Indeed, before becoming a citizen he had spent a grand total of twelve days in the country, well short of the 1,350 that are usually required. (His citizenship was kept secret until 2017.) In 2015, he spent $10 million on an estate on the shore of Lake Wanaka, making him a neighbour to Shania Twain, among others.
New Zealand is a popular destination for the superwealthy, because of its low tax rates and picturesque scenery, but the country has another lustre for those with billions of dollars: it is a favoured destination for those who wish to ride out the downfall of civilisation. In some circles, the phrase “buying a property in New Zealand” has become shorthand for a person hedging ones bets against the possibility of a society W.R.O.L. – without rule of law.
A piece in the Guardian earlier this year noted that the trend for doomsday prepping has its origins in a book, The Sovereign Individual, published twenty years ago, which predicted that a “cognitive elite” would rise and, liberated by technology from all social and political obligations, would be free to live in omniscient isolation in remote boltholes like New Zealand. The idea of New Zealand as terra nullius was certainly bemusing to some of the millions of people who currently live and work there.
Like all good businessmen, Thiel hedged his bet on New Zealand. After becoming a citizen in secret in 2011, he seemed to “ghost” the country, removing references to it from the web page of Valar Ventures, the venture capital firm whose investments helped him secure a Kiwi passport. But Thiel hedged his bet on Donald J. Trump too, by renewing his investment in his sanctuary thousands of miles away. In February 2018, the New Zealand Herald reported that Thiel had built a panic room into his other New Zealand home, his four-bedroom house in suburban Auckland.
Other billionaires with property around Lake Wanaka have built straight-up bunkers in which to cocoon themselves when the end comes. This seems a little redundant: with its abundant clean water, its mountainous terrain and its utter lack of people, this area is surely as close to a natural bunker as a wealthy yet paranoid individual could hope to get. A splendidly isolated spot from which to survey ones greatness and accomplishment, while stopping once in a while to inject a fresh dose of youthful blood into ones eternally pulsing veins.
Media coverage of Thiel has often portrayed him as a real-life comic-book supervillain, but like all literary monsters, there is an undercurrent of tragedy to him. What hope do any of us have of living a fulfilling and decent life, if this guy can become wealthy and powerful, and still be haunted by all of these ghosts?
Thiel is an intensely political character, and an ardent defender of capitalism – and certainly, his behaviour goes a long way towards discrediting socialism, just as he would wish it to. Critics of Marxism often argue that it is merely the equal sharing of poverty and misery, but if that is true, then surely it is also the equal distribution of the neuroticism and paranoia of wealthy men. And I, for one, don’t want to be any more like Peter Thiel than I already am.