Wednesday 29 April 2020

Letter from Auckland 2 by Oscar Mardell

Here's the second of Oscar Mardell's Letters from Auckland, delivered live to camera on Saturday 25th April as part of that evening's Leap in the Dark, and reproduced with the kind permission of the author.

It's a fascinating piece exploring the popularity of New Zealand with American billionaires as a safe refuge in a time of global crisis, and has some penetrating things to say about  the creepy Jacob Rees-Mogg's equally creepy father William. And it introduced me to The Quiet Earth, a dystopian film shot in New Zealand and one I shan't forget in a hurry.

Ends of the World at the End of the World

Kia ora koutou once again from Aotearoa New Zealand.

Since I last spoke, New Zealand has been keeping well: our infection rate has continued to decrease, and our fatality count has only climbed as high as twelve. And most of this is due, no doubt, to the stateswomanship of our Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Jacinda Ardern– whom the Atlantic recently called “perhaps the most effective leader on the planet”, and whom everyone else simply calls ‘Cindy’.

Otherwise, it might well seem that the daily experience here has remained unremarkable: we continue to spend our days at home, and we continue to be confronted by eerie, empty landscapes whenever we venture outside. But here, I think, an empty landscape is doubly eerie. A place void of people is weird in itself, an excess of nothing where there should be something; but in New Zealand it’s weird for political reasons too. And that’s because, for the past twenty years, a certain kind of person has been busy imagining New Zealand as the best place to survive the end of the world, as the ideal stage on which to enact their fantasies of last-person-left-alive (perhaps ‘person’ isn’t quite the right word).
It all begins in 1997, with the publication of a Libertarian manifesto called The Sovereign Individual. It’s authors are James Dale Davison – a private investor who specialises in giving advice to the mega-rich on how to profit from economic catastrophe – and William Rees-Mogg – the long-time editor of The Times, and father to the Conservative MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg. Now, there’s a lot of sinister stuff in The Sovereign Individual (I’ve glanced through it so that you don’t have to touch it with a barge pole): it holds that the rise of the internet and the advent of cryptocurrencies will render the state an obsolete political entity, and that from the wreckage will emerge a new world order and a “cognitive elite”. The members of this elite, it reckons, “will operate like the gods of myth in the same physical environment as the ordinary, subject citizen, but in a separate realm politically”. From my position, what’s perhaps most sinister of all is the fact that the book names New Zealand as the “domicile of choice for wealth creation in the Information Age”: I live, apparently, in the best place to get rich while the world burns.

Peter Thiel – the billionaire venture capitalist who co-founded PayPal – once said that The Sovereign Individual had influenced him more than any other book. No surprise, then, that Thiel’s “domicile of choice” is also New Zealand, nor that he once declared that “no other country that aligns more with my view of the future”. What might come as a surprise is that Thiel is also obsessed with The Lord of the Rings – whose latest film adaptations were famously shot here by Peter Jackson: Thiel’s companies have names like Palantir Technologies, Valar Ventures LP, Mithril Capital Management LLC, Rivendell One LLC, and Lembas LLC. One suspects that Thiel’s “view of the future” like his vision of New Zealand, is faux-medieval, laissez-faire feudalism.

Since Thiel’s declaration, The Sovereign Individual has developed a cult following among the billionaire executives of Silicon Valley, whole legions of whom have been dutifully buying up whole swathes of land in the South Island, filling them with luxury survival bunkers and converting the terrain into some kind of End Times Shire, a Hobbiton-on-Hades. On the one hand, it’s clear that New Zealand has been chosen for practical reasons: for its isolation, its access to fresh water, and its relatively low levels of pollution.  On the other hand, the country has doubtless been picked for symbolic reasons too – on account of what it represents. The islands which we call New Zealand have been inhabited by Maori since at least as far back as the 13th Century (perhaps as far back as the 8th), but since the earliest colonial times, these islands have been imagined  – and on some occasions, declared in law – as ‘terra nullius’, a no man’s land, a clean slate and a blank canvas. There is, in other words, a long-established tradition here, of people turning up and pretending that they are the only ones around, of Johnnies-come-lately transplanting their own fantasies onto a landscape that is already pregnant with its own history. 

Looking outside, it might be tempting to conclude that the psychopaths of Silicone Valley might have been right all along: that they were correct in predicting catastrophe, and that they were correct in imagining New Zealand as the ideal place to spend it. But to do so would be wrongheaded, I think, and that’s because the view outside – desolate streetscapes and so forth – has been predicted with greater accuracy, and with more sensitivity to place, by the actual inhabitants of New Zealand. People aren’t saying that their cities looks like Libertarian Mordors or like the Bitcoin Mines of Moria. The film on everyone’s lips right now is a Kiwi-made Science Fiction film from 1985 called The Quiet Earth. And it’s on everyone’s lips because it yields a very good answer to the question: what does it look like when New Zealand gets to imagine a global catastrophe on its own terms - when, instead of simply being cast as the set of someone else’s last-man-left-alive fantasy, it gets to write the fantasy itself?

In The Quiet Earth, Dr Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) wakes up one morning to discover that he’s the only person left alive. He wanders, baffled, through empty streets in Auckland, dressed in a silk negligee and armed with a pump-action shot gun. It makes for quite weird viewing today, not because of the negligee/shotgun combination – this is standard attire in many rural areas – but because the setting looks so uncannily like the view outside right now.

Watch an astonishing clip here.

Hobson does some tests and makes some conclusions: he hasn’t just survived an event which has killed everyone else, he has woken up in an exact replica of planet Earth – albeit, one which is otherwise void of people (though it does eventually transpires that there are two other people in this replica). But in New Zealand, the replica feels doubly eerie. Much of the film is shot at recognisable Auckland locations: at Pah Homestead – an Italianate Villa built on the site of a former Maori settlement which now houses the private art collection of a tannery tycoon – and at St Matthew’s Cathedral – an edifice from the Disneyland branch of Gothic-revival, and an unconvincing imitation of Truro Cathedral in Cornwall.

The meaning of these settings is clear: much of New Zealand is already replica, a facsimile version of some Italian or English location, which is itself – more often than not – a facsimile version of some other time or place. These sites are the offspring of the ‘Terra Nullius’ myth: when we pretend that one landscape is vacant we invariably force it to resemble another. And the Doomsday Hobbit Holes of Silicon Valley are their latter-day descendants. 

If the streets feel eerie now, it’s not because they fulfil the fantasies of those techno-psychos, it’s because they evoke an earlier myth, and the ancestor of the Silicon dream: for the first time since the 13th Century, perhaps even the 8th, New Zealand does actually look like ‘Terra Nullius’, like a landscape void of people.

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