Would you believe that Steve Huffman got corrective eye surgery because he's worried that he won't get glasses or contacts if the economy and government fall apart? It's true. He's the headliner for a fascinating New Yorker article exposing the hidden world of ultrarich preppers in both tech and Wall Street.
Huffman, who lives in San Francisco, has large blue eyes, thick, sandy hair, and an air of restless curiosity; at the University of Virginia, he was a competitive ballroom dancer, who hacked his roommate’s Web site as a prank. He is less focussed on a specific threat—a quake on the San Andreas, a pandemic, a dirty bomb—than he is on the aftermath, “the temporary collapse of our government and structures,” as he puts it. “I own a couple of motorcycles. I have a bunch of guns and ammo. Food. I figure that, with that, I can hole up in my house for some amount of time.”
At the article relates, he ain't the only one.
In private Facebook groups, wealthy survivalists swap tips on gas masks, bunkers, and locations safe from the effects of climate change. One member, the head of an investment firm, told me, “I keep a helicopter gassed up all the time, and I have an underground bunker with an air-filtration system.” He said that his preparations probably put him at the “extreme” end among his peers. But he added, “A lot of my friends do the guns and the motorcycles and the gold coins. That’s not too rare anymore.”
As the article does note, this is a real sea-change in the prepping world. Prepping started in the 1970. It was originally called survivalism, and was promoted within the goldbug circuit. Thus, it became associated with goldbug ideology - to an unfair extent; gold-bashers never tired of linking all precious-metals boosters to kooky survivalists. Some goldbugs, like Harry Browne, tried to deflect this bashing by calling a survival outpost a "retreat" and suggesting that it should in part be a vacation home. Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Catalog fellow, had an influence on '70s-era survivalism - but his "branding" (if you will) didn't stick. His Catalogs were cited as resources, but his vision of back-to-the-land as an ideal didn't carry over into the survivalist circuit. (Certainly, the communalism part didn't.) The survivalist vision was not one where happy hippies grew roots in the outback: it was a dark nightmare in which national bankruptcy triggered a Dark-Ages-type collapse.
(Image from here.)
The early goldbugs were either outright libertarians or libertarian-influenced. They also were survivalists or looked favorably on survivalsism, embarrassed they might be. This resulted in an interesting inconsistency.
As all present-day libertarians know, modern libertarianism is profoundly Lockean. True, Locke's thought has been updated and cleaned up by the formalization of the Non-Aggression Principle. But the fact remains: when you get this:
you also get this:
In stark contrast, the survivalist world is profoundly Hobbesian. Hobbes famously said, in the state of nature life is "solitarie, poore, nasty, brutish and short." With the exception of "solitarie" - which is actually false to fact, as modern anthropologists have figured out - the Hobbesian ethos suffuses survivalism and prepping. Replace "solitarie" with the anthropologically-sound "tribal," and the Hobbesian quintune is all there.
- Tribal: one standard piece of prepper advice is make sure that your neighbors are on your side. Your retreat should be in a locale with good, trustworthy neighbors.
- Poore: goes without saying. It's an article of faith that the collapse of government in a disaster scenario will lead to a lot of people starving.
- Nasty: It's another article of faith that strangers will be hostile, or at least inimical until proven otherwise. Consistent with the modern worldview, ordinary folks will become "nasty" because they're "poore."
- Brutish: The post-SHTF world is a harsh world, 'tis true. Preppers vary when it comes to explaining how brutish you and your in-group have to become in a survival situation. But they're all unanimous in illustrating how brutish others will be.
- Short: Death by starvation, disease and pre-existing medial conditions become part of everyday life. So does death by violence.
(Image from here.)
Interestingly, as survivalism has evolved into prepping, preppers have moved away from libertarianism. They still respect classic libertarians as elder statesmen, but the mainstream is now Constitutional Conservatism. The Stewart Brand of prepping, in the sense of being the go-to tips-and-tricks guy, is James Wesley Rawles. The proprietor of SurvivalBlog.com, he describes himself as a "Constitutionalist Christian libertarian." But its clear from his writing that his Christianity is what comes first, with Constitutionalism second. The modern prepper novels don't require the author to know anything about libertarian theory or even economics above the basic common-sense level. But it's obligatory that the author knows a lot about guns...
Given that ordinary Constitutional Conservatives are acquiring a taste for calling libertarians "liberal-tarians", it's foreseeable that libertarianism will fade away from being elder-statesman to nuisance.
So Why Are Super-Rich Brain Workers Joining In?
As I hope I've indicated, the prepper crowd as it stands is not exactly the kind of crowd where people like Steve Huffman would feel welcome. So why are they glomming onto it?
As the New Yorkerarticle explains, there are reasons like:
- fear of social divisions becoming nasty.
- fear of an upcoming civil war or serious natural disaster.
- enthrallment at "radical self-reliance" as an ideal.
- fear that today's complex society is increasingly fragile to disruptions
- dystopianism as a yang to the more-normal yin of techno-optimism.
There's one addition reason, which is a favorite of rich folks who do not like prepping:
- Anti-preppers believe that preppers are really scared of a Russian-revolution type of scenario prompted by income inequality.
If you hear that as the reason given for the newfound popularity of prepping, you've bumped into someone who does not like the trend. There's a noteworthy confluence here: if someone is an uber-level economic liberal, (s)he believes that rich preppers are taking the easy way out and are reneging on their social responsibilities.
This rather huffy take on the matter reinforces the outsider-Conservatives' take on uberliberals as the folks who really run the show. Uberliberals are the ones with the "stewardship ethos" that comes with people who see themselves in charge.
Why Now? The Inevitable America-As-Rome Comparison
Way back in 1997, the late Michael Grant wrote a short book entitled The Fall of the Roman Empire. It contained thirteen essays, each of which focused on one fault point that helped weaken the Western Roman Empire to its ruin. One of the points he focused on was the rise of monks as late-Empire celebrities. These monks, many of which were high-born, renounced their comforts and lived penurious lives in harsh places like the desert. They did so to become closer to God. Dr. Grant, taking a strictly secular view, said that the celebrity status of these monks - and the fact that they also renounced their duties as well as privileges - meant that people who renounced civitas became admirable role models, thus encouraging other Romans to cast off their civic spirit along with their wealth.
Is prepping - particularly prepping amongst the super-rich - the same phenomenon in post-modern America? Are we seeing the slow-motion death throes of the "American Empire"?
On the other hand, doomsaying has deep and long-standing roots in American culture and America has ascended to hyperpower status nonetheless. Prepping may just be a fad, just a symptom of challenging times that make up the first half of the Toynbee dyad "challenge and response.". We could be on the cusp of seeing yet another renewal "when 'creative minorities' devised solutions that reoriented their entire society" back on the path to greatness.
(Image from here.)
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And thanks for reading!