Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Benedict Option For Skrillionaires

The ultra-rich as canaries in the civilizational coal mine

Did you know that Trump adviser Peter Thiel quietly became a citizen of New Zealand as well as the US? Turns out that this is a thing now for people of his class. Evan Osnos of The New Yorker reports that the ultra-rich are now devising escape plans to be used in case civilization collapses — and the island nation is a popular destination. More:

Survivalism, the practice of preparing for a crackup of civilization, tends to evoke a certain picture: the woodsman in the tinfoil hat, the hysteric with the hoard of beans, the religious doomsayer. But in recent years survivalism has expanded to more affluent quarters, taking root in Silicon Valley and New York City, among technology executives, hedge-fund managers, and others in their economic cohort.

Last spring, as the Presidential campaign exposed increasingly toxic divisions in America, Antonio García Martínez, a forty-year-old former Facebook product manager living in San Francisco, bought five wooded acres on an island in the Pacific Northwest and brought in generators, solar panels, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. “When society loses a healthy founding myth, it descends into chaos,” he told me. [Emphasis mine — RD] The author of “Chaos Monkeys,” an acerbic Silicon Valley memoir, García Martínez wanted a refuge that would be far from cities but not entirely isolated. “All these dudes think that one guy alone could somehow withstand the roving mob,” he said. “No, you’re going to need to form a local militia. You just need so many things to actually ride out the apocalypse.” Once he started telling peers in the Bay Area about his “little island project,” they came “out of the woodwork” to describe their own preparations, he said. “I think people who are particularly attuned to the levers by which society actually works understand that we are skating on really thin cultural ice right now.”

No kidding. More:

In building Reddit, a community of thousands of discussion threads, into one of the most frequently visited sites in the world, [doom$day prepper Steve] Huffman has grown aware of the way that technology alters our relations with one another, for better and for worse. He has witnessed how social media can magnify public fear. “It’s easier for people to panic when they’re together,” he said, pointing out that “the Internet has made it easier for people to be together,” yet it also alerts people to emerging risks. Long before the financial crisis became front-page news, early signs appeared in user comments on Reddit. “People were starting to whisper about mortgages. They were worried about student debt. They were worried about debt in general. There was a lot of, ‘This is too good to be true. This doesn’t smell right.’ ” He added, “There’s probably some false positives in there as well, but, in general, I think we’re a pretty good gauge of public sentiment. When we’re talking about a faith-based collapse, you’re going to start to see the chips in the foundation on social media first.”


As public institutions deteriorate, élite anxiety has emerged as a gauge of our national predicament. “Why do people who are envied for being so powerful appear to be so afraid?” [hedge fund manager Robert A.] Johnson asked. “What does that really tell us about our system?” He added, “It’s a very odd thing. You’re basically seeing that the people who’ve been the best at reading the tea leaves—the ones with the most resources, because that’s how they made their money—are now the ones most preparing to pull the rip cord and jump out of the plane.”

Read the whole thing. 

So, that’s the Benedict Option of the superrich. It’s not the one anybody else can afford to take, nor, arguably, is it the one that Christians should take, but that’s beside the point. Those with great resources will always take care of themselves, and let’s be honest: if civilization collapsed, all of us would be looking to protect our families too. What’s interesting here is the canary-in-the-coal-mine aspect of this story.

I’m especially interested in the Silicon Valley guy’s statement about the loss of the “healthy founding myth” of a society being a harbinger of its doom. What do you suppose he’s talking about? Christianity? The political principles of the American founding? Or just a general sense that we’re all in this together as a nation?

What the Benedict Option (FAQ here) has in common with this is a sense that we are on very thin civilizational ice, and the time to prepare for things falling apart is now. But there are at least two important differences:

  1. The Benedict Option does not see the collapse as a future event. It sees the collapse as well underway, only now beginning a sharp quickening. What constitutes the collapse is the dissolution of the Christian faith in the West, and with it the loosening of the ties to certain moral and religious beliefs that held us together. “Religion” comes from the Latin word religare, meaning “to bind.” Without a shared religion, we lose our binding. No alternative myth has arisen to replace Christianity, and people in our day seem unwilling to repent and to return to the faith. The Roman historian Livy said, of his society, “We have reached that point where we can neither bear our vices nor the remedies for them.” He wrote this at the beginning of the Christian era, when Roman power was at its apex. Livy saw the rot setting in, however.
  2. The Benedict Option does not say “head for the hills!”, though if one wanted to do that, fine, but don’t think that geographical isolation is going to save your family’s faith. Rather, the Ben Op is a strategy for sheltering in place, and building the internal practices and external institutions that will impart to Christians the ability to successfully resist and ride out the collapse. As with the early church in the face of plague, for most of us, our role is to be present to help others through what is to come. To do so, we have to be training ourselves and building up our communities right now, while there is time. I’m not talking about being a doomsday prepper in terms of building fortified hideaways in the mountains. I’m talking about building spiritual shelters that are both sanctuaries and sources of light for people lost in the darkness — just as Benedictine monasteries were in the chaos of the early Middle Ages.

Still, don’t lose sight of Robert A. Johnson’s point: that those who have made the most money in our society are those who fear its collapse. What does that tell us? In the Osnos piece, there are a couple of voices from among the superrich saying that escape is the wrong idea, that they ought instead to be working to solve the problems among us that cause them to consider escape. I get that, and it’s true to some extent. But at what point does that view become a form of denial? At what point do you recognize that the conditions under which those problems might be solved do not exist? When do you reach what Alasdair MacIntyre called “a crucial turning point”:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.

That “crucial turning point” is where the Benedict Option (pre-order the book here) begins.

Say, readers, I’m about to leave for the airport, headed to Washington DC for the next two days, joining a bunch of folks at the Southern Baptist ERLC’s religious liberty summit. The event is off the record, but there will be a number of key people involved in the religious liberty debate present, and I’ll be talking to many of them outside of conference events. I’m sure I can get some on the record, and I’ll report back here. Point is, approving comments is going to be slow going today. I appreciate your patience.

UPDATE: TAC’s Noah Millman posted on this yesterday. Excerpt:

But elite anxiety is not just a gauge of our national predicament. It’s a cause. These are people who have the power and position of societal leaders. They built the plane, they own the plane, and they fly the plane. We are all flying along with them. And they are having serious conversations about bailing out rather than, I don’t know, changing course, preparing for a water landing — anything that suggests a concern for all the other people in the plane as something other than a threat.

Survivalism isn’t new, of course — and the article talks about some of the comical and terrifying antecedents. But there is an enormous difference between self-appointed prophets of doom plying their trade and the leadership of society saying, “I paid for that parachute.”


UPDATE: Hey, look at this: Antonio Garcia-Martinez left this comment:

Since I’m mentioned in the piece, like to clarify some things.

For starters, financially I shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same article with people like Thiel. I’m not even remotely a skrillionaire, having just worked at Facebook (relatively late) for a couple of years.

Secondly, I have no intention of leaving the US, especially during a tumultuous time like now. I have an EU passport by legacy, but I have no intention of using it to flee. The land in question is very much in the US of A.

In fact, I very much resent the truly Silicon Valley affluent (and they do exist, this piece isn’t criticizing a straw man)
who are vowing to leave should Trump’s presidency continue on its present course. For starters, it’s all posturing. My parents were political refugees; exile is traumatizing and awful. This crowd doesn’t have the stomach for it. Secondly, they’re indeed Benedict Arnolds, running when the republic actually needs capable people of means more than ever.

Thirdly, I’m not really such an apocalypse prepper, though the idea did come to mind when I bought the land (as it has to others on the island, most of whom are certainly not techie elites). I’m homesteading a rural property because I love the area, and I take making raw forest livable an interesting personal challenge. As a side benefit, it could be a place to sit out some economic turmoil, but that’s not why I’m doing this. To be blunt, most of these apocalypse bunkers seem like horrible places to be, and I suspect most will sit there expensively gathering dust.

As for the questions about my statement concerning a founding myth: Unlike old European countries with their blood-soaked soils and temples erected to their own cultures (not that they worship in them very much anymore), the US in many ways is founded on a myth. On a myth around equality and justice for all, and a 15-page document providing only the vaguest instructions. We re-write and re-tell that myth with every generation, answering the question “What’s America?” with some improvised but audacious cultural amalgam drawn from all four corners of the world, but united under a sense of common purpose and values. As a society I feel we’ve kind of lost the plot on the sense of unity and purpose. That’s in no small part due to the ‘identity politics’ of the Left, that’s balkanized our society by placing the gripes (both real and imagined) of the few over not just the good of the many, but the very values that griping purports to defend. On this media outlet at least, I imagine I don’t need to drive that point any further. But there’s some more background on the statement.

Lastly, even though I’m kind of being included in the rogues’ gallery (wrongly I’d say), I’m glad the media is holding elites accountable. As I describe in my memoir (mentioned above), Silicon Valley is full of selfish pricks who’d bail on the American Experiment as soon as the going got tough. They don’t deserve much of the praise the business press lavishes on them, and they as a class are rightly paranoid of what society will do to them when the extent of their depredations, both financially and culturally, is fully appreciated.

Thanks for this, especially for your clarification about the waning of the founding myth. I think you’re right about that. I believe that the cultural left has a lot to answer for on that front, but it’s also the case that the economic right does too. American culture has been increasingly individualist — indeed, hyperindividualist — since the end of the Second World War. Technology has also ramped up the dissolution. Antonio, take a look at this essay by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who discussed how in late modernity, we have gone from being pilgrims to being tourists. One can’t blame the fracturing wholly on one political side or the other. I would say that it is baked into the cake of modernity.