Escape Therapy: On Douglas Rushkoff’s “Survival of the Richest”
By Raymond CraibJanuary 25, 2023
Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires by Douglas Rushkoff
The Galt’s Gulch dream is a classic capitalist escape fantasy: wealthy captains of industry retreat to luxury compounds far from the inferior masses, where they propose to wait out the economic implosion that will result from their exodus. But as Douglas Rushkoff’s new book Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires reminds us, having to stomach young Randians “going Galt” may be the least of our concerns. The various Galt’s Gulches of the new century are only one manifestation of a range of hypercapitalist escape plans that threaten to leave the rest of us paying the financial, ecological, and political costs.
The opening pages of Survival of the Richest describe what could easily be a scene from a James Bond novel. Our protagonist — in this case, Rushkoff — is flying in business class to a distant airport. Provided with luxuries like noise-canceling headphones and warmed nuts, he will be met by a high-end limousine and ferried to a remote desert location. All of this is at the invitation and expense of an unnamed group of mysterious billionaires.
Despite the large honorarium these billionaires offer him, the exact reason they have invited him to their retreat is initially mysterious: as best as he can figure, he is to provide general insight on technology and its future. Once he finally meets them the next day, he is astonished to discover that they are looking for his guidance on how to survive what they refer to as “The Event” — “the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, solar storm, unstoppable virus, or malicious computer hack that takes everything down.” In their desire to protect themselves from the worst consequences of such scenarios, these individuals have begun to develop various lines of escape: bunkers, seasteads, plans for space colonies, and the like. The catch is that the apocalyptic futures they fear are largely a consequence of their own financial, ecological, technological, and ideological commitments. That they refuse to head off the End of Times by changing their behavior is the central irrationality embedded in what Rushkoff calls “The Mindset” (building on Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron’s 1995 essay “The Californian Ideology”).
Over the course of the subsequent chapters, Rushkoff tracks a range of activities that could be ascribed to the Mindset. The early chapters take up the idea of escape in its most obvious form: exodus from society writ large. We meet an array of characters, starting with J. C. Cole, the former president of Latvia’s American Chamber of Commerce, who has established a couple of “Safe Haven Farms” in the vicinity of New York City for millionaire preppers wanting to weather the first years of collapse not as isolated individuals but as part of an elite community. The farms would function as investment opportunities: millionaires could live on the farms, make a profit from food production, and “ensure there are as few hungry children at the gate as possible.” Cole is not interested in just a few such militarized safe havens but in scaling up to the point of “restor[ing] regional food security in America.” Rushkoff sees Cole’s ideas as cooperative in nature, which he hints may be the reason he has been unable to attract investors. Billionaire preppers, he argues, are not interested in community.
So, what are they interested in? Well, for one thing, “aristocrat” luxury bunkers with bowling lanes, wine vaults, and swimming pools that go for a cool $8.3 million. And floating, private seasteads on the open ocean that carry a similarly hefty price tag. And a host of other schemes intended to protect them from all manner of grim realities. But these are ludicrous survival strategies. The microclimates are too fussy for long-term occupation, and no environment can be truly sealed off from the outside. Just as important, things break; replacement parts need to be manufactured, delivered, and installed; compounds need to be protected, and their guards kept loyal; and so forth. In other words, labor is an essential and obvious hiccup. The silliness of Rand’s fantasy of Galt’s Gulch was always the following: Miffed capitalists run off to a Rocky Mountain retreat? Awesome. Who needs them? The real labor that keeps things working will continue without them. The desperation with which the uber-capitalist class clings to a libertarian lexicon of “individuality” and “self-sovereignty” suggests that, at some level, they recognize their own parasitism. And indeed, it turns out that the billionaires who invited Rushkoff out to the desert want, more than anything, his approval of their libertarian philosophical positions.
After these early chapters, however, Survival of the Richest becomes less about geographic than structural escape — and more generally about the ways in which a hyperindividualist perspective has infiltrated our economic, social, and political landscape, particularly through techno-capitalist epistemologies and methodologies. Capitalism and technology have, Rushkoff writes, “formed a mutually reinforcing feedback loop that encourages entrepreneurs to envision a future ruled by private sector technologies.” Rushkoff covers a lot of ground — from Airbnb and its anti-regulatory aspirations to Uber and transit planning; from the relentless pursuit of “hockey stick” growth curves to the obsession with huge returns on investments for shareholders; from Facebook and the Metaverse to Burning Man and Wired magazine; from critiques of empiricism to excursions into language.
What becomes clear is that Rushkoff wants to rescue the lost promise of technology, now corrupted by “extreme capitalism.” He rues, for example, how market sensibilities came to dominate the tech sector, beginning with the failed AOL–Time Warner merger in 2000. Prior to that, he argues, a more promising and open-ended digital future prevailed: it was “a playground for the counterculture, who saw in it the opportunity to invent a more inclusive, distributed, and participatory future.” But the counterculture had its own entrepreneurial, hierarchical, and individualist ethos, to say nothing of its gendered and racialized dynamics, and so Rushkoff’s lament for tech’s golden years feels naïve and nostalgic.  It also mirrors the techno-optimism of his own subjects, fixated as they are on technological solutions to social issues. But technological fixes to social problems are a mirage. An inclusive, distributed, and participatory future will not be the result of technology but of changing the social system. Technology may be a big deal, but the elephant in the room is billionaires’ wealth and outsized influence. It is the fact that they are billionaires that insulates them from the consequences of their own actions and compels them to obstruct and savage efforts to structurally address what ails us.
The cover for Survival of the Richest features a small island with a few palm trees inside a snow-globe bubble. The image is slightly misleading — Rushkoff is less interested in a particular geography of escape than in the structural idea of escape. But even if he were interested in the geographies of escape, the island motif is hardly suitable. The private, gated, sovereign community would be far more appropriate. A capitalist monument to geographical and social secession, it sits apart yet directly in our midst, at once independent of us but dependent upon us. (Where will you find labor if you bugger off to a distant island?) Here one should turn to the imagination of one of the darkest visionaries of our near future: J. G. Ballard.
Ballard was not so much a futurist as a near-presentist. With an uncanny ability to see just beyond the approaching horizon, he understood how the most mundanely dismal aspects of our existence would hobble us for the long haul. In works such as Concrete Island (1974) and High-Rise (1975), he explored the myths of civilization and barbarism that primed the pump of classical liberalism. But most relevant was his novel Super-Cannes (2000), which takes place in a high-tech residential business park called Eden-Olympia, located on the French Riviera. Here, the ultra-wealthy live cloistered in contained environments, exercising their agency at will on the local population.
An unsettling portrait of where the world has been for some time, it is no coincidence that the “bigwigs” of Eden-Olympia do their “entertaining” at Villa Grimaldi, which was the name of one of the more infamous torture camps in Santiago, Chile, set up by the regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet after the military coup d’état against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. (Villa Grimaldi, notably, was situated in the midst of a residential neighborhood in eastern Santiago.) In overthrowing Allende, the Pinochet regime also overthrew the progressive economic and political project to which Allende’s administration had committed itself. In its place, and with the close assistance of University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman and his students, Pinochet forcibly carried out a radical experiment in social and economic engineering. Pinochet and Friedman, dedicated to what they called “shock therapy,” dismantled Chile’s social security systems, collective bargaining rights, safety nets, welfare systems, and public provisioning. This neoliberal counterrevolution cut its teeth on the working class and lumpenproletariat. Chile was, as one advocate for Eden-Olympia puts it in Super-Cannes, “a huge experiment in how to hothouse the future.”
Friedman and his followers look a lot like today’s “disrupters,” as they are now called. Similarly, shock therapy can be thought of as an early iteration of Silicon Valley’s slogan “move fast and break things.” Shock therapy, it turns out, set the stage for contemporary escape fantasies. It is no coincidence that Friedman’s grandson, Patri, was the first director of the Seasteading Institute (TSI). Founded in 2008 with Peter Thiel’s financial backing, it is dedicated to escaping the nation-state by building autonomous floating platforms on the high seas. Thiel famously declared democracy and freedom to be incompatible. The statement is perfectly consonant with a political theory that understands “freedom” as emancipation from government (or collective) oversight and regulation. It may be a grim irony, but it is also ideologically consistent that Friedman published a work called Free to Choose: A Personal Statement (1980) even as he aided and abetted a dictator in the destruction of Chile’s social democracy. Market “freedom” could only have happened through force. Even the most outspoken free-market fundamentalists admit that little of what Pinochet and Friedman put in place would have happened via democratic processes. The same is true for the recent efforts by various tech bros and former Reagan officials to create charter cities and “free” private cities in Honduras: their efforts (thus far unsuccessful) were only possible due to the 2009 military coup d’état that overthrew the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya.
Democracy is a thorn in the side of Promethean world-builders, from the neoliberal ideologues battling the New Deal in the postwar era to the contemporary seasteaders and advocates of charter cities, from Rand and Friedman to Thiel and Musk. The messy process of consensus building, and of argument and compromise, is anathema to their self-interested idea of anti-politics. The refrains are predictable: Government is inefficient. Regulations inhibit creativity. Oversight is oppressive. Consensus and compromise take too much time. Politicians are corrupt and the plebes don’t know what is good for them. What is to be done? Trust the disrupters. Embrace greed (“effective altruism,” anyone?). Innovate. Unleash the entrepreneurial kraken! In this rendering, politics is a dead end, as captured by slogans like the Free Nation Foundation’s “Stop Complaining. Start Building,” or, more recently, the Startup Societies Network’s “Don’t Argue. Build.”
I will bracket for now a number of obvious issues that arise from enacting such slogans (they suggest that their advocates have never had to deal with zoning issues or are perfectly fine with not challenging a neighbor who wants to build a billboard in front of their bay window or a firing range in their backyard, or dump toxic waste in the garden, or cook meth in the basement, or … well, you get the point). Let me point instead to their insidiously dictatorial desire to evacuate debate and politics from the process of building. And yet, the basic foundations of freedom are surely built on the ability of peoples to speak and assemble and, as cultural critic Marshall Berman has noted, “to argue,” little of which was tolerated in Pinochet’s Chile.
This history matters: in part as a reminder that the protagonists of Rushkoff’s book are only the latest iteration of the wealthy — whether via landed property, finance, or tech — who enrich themselves by impoverishing others, become powerful by weakening others, and exercise their voice by silencing others. The Silicon Valley tech titans like to see themselves as unique — as unique as the things they claim to create — but their Mindset is utterly derivative.
Survival of the Richest is a quick read. The writing is snappy, the turns of phrase memorable, the pace breathless. It is full of pithy formulations (the Mindset, “the dumbwaiter effect,” “the insulation equation,” and so forth) that capture a practice or process the author is trying to explain. But these very same qualities make it a frustrating read. At times it feels like a transcribed TED Talk, with all of the drawbacks one might associate with such a form, particularly conceptual overgeneralization and bibliographic thinness.  The capacious range of the book is exhilarating, but the analysis feels uncooked, with plenty of missed opportunities for more serious exploration.
A good example is Rushkoff’s interactions with the various subjects who are central to the book. Rushkoff reminds us often that he has spent quite a lot of time with the billionaires and high-powered intellectuals at the forefront of the Mindset. They have invited him to their upscale lofts, desert retreats, and Central Park West apartments, and on all-expenses-paid Caribbean getaways, and to exclusive conferences. This is not necessarily a problem. Such invitations, after all, could provide insight not available through traditional sources. But rarely does anything of unusual substance or depth emerge from these moments of ethnographic possibility. They do, however, raise the question of why so many of these odious figures turn to Rushkoff for advice, particularly when he mocks them. Could it be that his critique is one that they can live with or even that works for them? Has he, despite his disdain, fallen for their charms?
There are moments in the book that made me wonder. Early on, he suggests that his billionaires are victims of the very games they play. Rather than being society’s winners, he writes, “these men are actually the losers.” That’s, well, a bit rich. I found myself rereading the passage a second time out loud in the voice of hypercapitalist caricature Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons (“This anonymous clan of slack-jawed troglodytes has cost me the election, and yet if I were to have them killed, I would be the one to go to jail. That's democracy for you”). I tried to imagine in what ways these guys (and they are nearly all male) are victims or losers. I couldn’t.
In part, this is because Rushkoff did not give me the means to do so. The reader gets no real sense of who these billionaires are as individuals. They remain frustratingly one-dimensional. This may be intentional, the idea being that to pay them too much attention would be to grant them a level of legitimacy they do not merit; I am sympathetic to such an argument. But it is a fine line to walk. Attending their events and accepting their invitations and money, after all, might also provide a kind of legitimacy. Moreover, regardless of their legitimacy (or lack thereof), they have significant agency. There is virtually nothing that they do not touch, from the electoral system to the economy to urbanism to social media to psychological warfare and advertising. They may live vapid lives, but they are hardly victims.
Rushkoff’s aim is partly for the reader to see these billionaires and their projects as absurd, even silly. Again, I can see the attraction in such an approach. I have found it difficult to avoid snark and sarcasm in my own writing about some of these characters. But it strikes me in this instance as missing the mark. For one thing, while it may be that their most grandiose visions are highly unlikely to come to fruition, their point may not be to achieve their most ambitious ends but to take advantage of the opportunities created along the way — opportunities that involve further privatization, increased wealth disparities, and social exclusions of the kind we already see. The spectacle is part of the grift. It is no accident that organizations such as the Seasteading Institute incorporate their opponents’ ridicule into their sales pitches. When the Netflix series Love, Death & Robots (2019–present) did an animated short mocking “exit” strategies such as bunker-prepping and seasteading, the Seasteading Institute referenced the ridicule in its promotional materials.
Of course they would: being dismissed as quirky delusionaries is central to the narrative that tech escapists like to tell about themselves as misunderstood dreamers and unappreciated geniuses. It is, moreover, a kind of sales pitch sleight of hand. They count on us being too busy staring agape, laughing at the absurdity of the vision or lamenting the betrayal of tech’s emancipatory possibilities, to notice the conventional stench of extraction, dispossession, and colonial sleaze wafting in the air.
After 185 pages of apocalyptic bang, Survival of the Richest ends with something of a whimper. “There’s no ‘solution’ to our woes,” Rushkoff concludes, “other than maintaining a softer, more open, and more responsible comportment toward one another.” It is hard not to imagine the bunker billionaires nodding with approval. No expropriations or nationalizations. No aggressive criminal investigations or increased jail time for bilking the public, or for Ponzi schemes, or for the theft of the future. No insistence on increased oversight and regulation. No structural changes. Instead, mindfulness.
When confronted with the question of what is to be done, Rushkoff seems reluctant to take seriously his own analysis. Although he self-identifies as a Marxist, in place of strong state action he advocates for fairly run-of-the-mill “alternative approaches” such as mutual aid, better consumer choices, changes in tax policy, and support of unionizing gig workers. At one level, of course, it is hard to disagree with any of these. Who’s against mutual aid? Or unions? These are tactics, everyday practices, that can mitigate the most egregious effects of capitalist exploitation and extraction. But as a political strategy to challenge a ruthlessly unequal society, these approaches are insufficient.
The Mindset is not merely a state of mind; it has a materiality and material consequences. Given its proponents’ exploitative ethos and ability to wreck the planet, the Mindset needs to be defeated rather than ignored or, worse, tolerated. Do we really want to just look the other way when Elon Musk cries “Fuck Earth!” and shoots for Mars while tweeting positively about possible coups d’état because he wants to ensure the lithium extraction upon which his company relies? No doubt we must engage with one another in ways that mirror the world in which we want to live. But living as one might wish to live is a distant dream for much of the planet’s population, whose lives are — directly and indirectly, brutally and subtly — shaped daily by the activities of the billionaire bunker class. Ignoring those activities and behaving better will hardly change that. “It is not by refusing to lie that we will abolish lies,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1948 treatise on class struggle, the play Dirty Hands.
Urban theorist and historian Mike Davis noted in an essay on climate change that we are not all in this together: a group of “first-class passengers” travels in style on our planet while a growing climate-lumpen fights it out in the heat of the approaching flames. Once it gets too hot, those elite passengers will jump ship — to underground bunkers, or to the ocean, or perhaps to orbital habitats, or most likely to heavily fortified private compounds. Having tried to escape death and taxes, they will next want to escape us and the conditions that they have helped create. So, what is to be done? Davis’s point was that, for the sake of all of us, we need to take away their preferential exit options, their “insulation equation,” as Rushkoff puts it. If the near future is as dire as many suggest — and all indications are that it is — we should do so soon. Exposing the Mindset is a start, which makes Survival of the Richest a necessary and timely read despite its shortcomings.
Raymond Craib is Marie Underhill Noll Professor of History at Cornell University and the author, most recently, of Adventure Capitalism: A History of Libertarian Exit, from the Era of Decolonization to the Digital Age (PM Press, 2022).
 As Todd Schramke’s 2022 HBO documentary The Anarchists details, the conference devolved into death and mayhem between 2018 and 2022.
 See Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (University of Chicago Press, 2006). Rushkoff references Turner’s book at one point but does not really delve into the implications of its argument.
 More useful studies of Silicon Valley include Noam Cohen’s The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and a Social Wrecking Ball (New Press, 2017); Paulina Borsook’s Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech (PublicAffairs, 2000); Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back (Doubleday, 2020); and Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (PublicAffairs, 2018). For works that move beyond the specificities of tech, Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books, 2015); Mark Fisher’s Capitalism Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Zero Books, 2009); and Richard Walker’s Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area (PM Press, 2018). The quintessential text for some outsized libertarians, such as Peter Thiel, is James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg’s The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State (Simon & Schuster, 1997), which outlines the project of privatization and neo-feudalism pretty directly.
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