Survival of the Richest

Douglas Rushkoff on the eschatology of libertarian exit.

Cory Doctorow
7 min readSep 13, 2022

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In 2018, Douglas Rushkoff had a bizarre experience: he was asked to speak at a billionaires’ retreat, only to find that he had been summoned to help the plutes in attendance figure out how to plan for the end of the world:

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jul/23/tech-industry-wealth-futurism-transhumanism-singularity

The super-rich attendees at the conference were obsessed with “The Event” — civil unrest, environmental collapse, some other end-of-the-world scenario — and how to survive it: where to site their bunkers, how to command the loyalty of their mercenaries after money lost its value.

Rushkoff realized that these guys were obsessed with outrunning the end of the world that they were creating through their drive to outrun the end of the world. They were singularly uninterested in preventing the end of the world, or even in surviving it through solidarity and mutual aid. They were committed to the Thatcher Doctrine that “there is no such thing as society” — and they were willing to destroy society to prove that it was true.

Four years later, Rushkoff has turned his experience with the wealthy, the technology-addled, and the selfish-solutionist wing of Silicon Valley into a book called Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires. It’s great.

https://wwnorton.com/books/survival-of-the-richest

Rushkoff’s key insight is that the wealthiest, most powerful people in the world understand on a deep level that they way they live has a good chance of causing civilizational collapse, mass die-offs, and terminally poison the only planet in the universe known to be capable of supporting human life.

They understand this, but they’ve made a virtue of it. Our society, our lives, and our planet are viewed as the booster stage of a rocket — a disposable thruster made to get us into orbit before it is discarded. We might wipe out our planet and civilization, but they can retreat to islands. Or orbit. Or Mars. Or the metaverse.

Rushkoff is a philosopher and media theorist, and Survival is an inquiry into the origins of this bizarre and suicidal impulse, asking how psychedelics, cybernetics, and techno-liberation movements could have resulted in this bizarre embrace of the end of the world.

The book revisits the touchstones of the tech world — Burning Man, the MIT Media Lab, Wired Magazine, John Brockman’s star-studded “Edge” salons, TED talks — and shows how each contributed in its own way to “The Mindset” — the ideology of the rich preppers.

Rushkoff doesn’t condemn all of this — he’s a product of it, as am I. Rather, he’s interested in how a movement that was once filled with people who decried greed and hubris incubated a movement that lionizes both. For Rushkoff, much of the blame can be traced to the “scientism” of materialism without ethics, the idea that the universe has no moral arc and any attempt to declare a morality is sentiment or cynical manipulation.

I’m a pretty staunch materialist myself, and so some of this made for uncomfortable reading (Rushkoff is an old friend and we’re scheduled to appear on stage together later this fall to discuss this, and I’m looking forward to it). I think ideology can explain how we act, but I think it’s a mistake to view ideology as a weightless and immaterial thing. Our material circumstances are key to what we believe — and how important those beliefs are to how we live.

But ideology is important, and I agree with Rushkoff that The Mindset is an ideology, and a bad one. I think he’s right that you can trace a line from a nihilistic scientism to Jeffrey Epstein’s plan to breed a race of superhumans by buying a private island and populating it with underage girls who would bear his children.

The private island is key. The Mindset is obsessed with leaving society behind, with creating a private space where the unnecessariat can’t make demands on the moral sentiments of their betters, whether that’s an island, a space colony or a seastead. This project of “libertarian exit” is beautifully documented in Raymond Craib’s book “Adventure Capitalism”:

https://pluralistic.net/2022/06/14/this-way-to-the-egress/#terra-nullius

Craib and I will be discussing that book live on Sept 29 at Skylight Books in LA; I’m looking forward to bringing Rushkoff’s book into the talk:

https://blog.pmpress.org/events/raymond-craib-and-cory-docrorow-discuss-adventure-capitalism-at-skylight-books-in-los-angeles/

Rushkoff’s original essay really hit home for me. It crystallized two longstanding obsession of mine: the obsession of rich people with runaway AI and their obsession with running away from the rest of us.

The obsession with runaway AI gets a good look-in in Survival. For me, I think the best way of understanding why self-styled capitalist titans are terrified of runaway AI is that they are externalizing their dread of the “slow AIs” (hat tip to Charlie Stross) that they created in the form of limited liability companies:

https://locusmag.com/2015/07/cory-doctorow-skynet-ascendant/

You don’t have to wait for AIs to live in a world dominated by immortal, remorseless colony organisms that view us as inconvenient gut-flora and want to take over the world and turn us all into paperclips — corporations fit the bill very well. What’s more, the super-rich who nominally control these companies know better than any of us how much these artificial life forms are in charge.

The other great theme in Survival is, of course, survival — prepping. At the root of every prepper’s feverish labors is the fantasy of a civilizational collapse in which they are finally recognized as a hero. Water chemists dream of mass water-poisonings in which they — and only they — can save us all. CEOs dream of collapses that require their own bitter soup of managerialism, esoteric financial knowledge and sociopathy can steer us out of the dark ages:

https://pluralistic.net/2020/03/22/preppers-are-larpers/#preppers-unprepared

That’s what I was thinking of when I wrote my 2019 novella “The Masque of the Red Death,” which depicts the slow decline of a wealthy prepper and his hand-picked cohort of bunker-mates when society experiences The Event:

https://pluralistic.net/2020/03/14/masque-of-the-red-death/#masque

The story is basically a series of contrasts, between the world that the protagonist dreams of entering, in which the skills of a high-frequency trader turn out to be The Right Stuff for leading a plucky band out through the apocalypse; and all the things that less self-obsessed people do to actually rebuild civilization.

It’s meant to be a tonic to the kinds of stories that Rushkoff’s Mindset types repeat to themselves over and over again — imaginary stories of the lives of “cavemen” that describe the competiton (for women, food, territory, etc) that created the “human nature” that makes it inevitable that they would be so greedy and selfish.

Like all evolutionary psychology, these are just-so stories, unfalsifiably thought-experiments of how the human mind must have been shaped for the Mindset to feel so natural. Like all evo-psych, it’s ideology dressed up as science — not “evidence-based policy” so much as “policy-based evidence.” As the biologist Anne Innis Dagg put it in her stellar takedown of evo-psych, “Love of Shopping Is Not A Gene”:

https://memex.craphound.com/2009/11/04/love-of-shopping-is-not-a-gene-exposing-junk-science-and-ideology-in-darwinian-psychology/

The actual evidence for the societies and arrangements that shaped our distant ancestors lives is much gnarlier and more interesting, as documented in David Graeber and David Wengrow’s “The Dawn of Everything,” which describes the incredible variety of ways that successful civilizations organized themselves under for hundreds or even thousands of years:

https://pluralistic.net/2022/03/08/three-freedoms/#anti-fatalism

More than anything, Graeber and Wengrow describe how there was never a time in which there was “no such thing as society.” At every turn, we have had to live our lives with care and compromise for the lives of others. There is no escaping the need to balance your own desires and yearnings against those of others.

This was a lesson of the pandemic, of course — at a foundational, microbial level, we have a shared destiny. Our microbiology is a commons that has to be collectively managed. But that’s true on the macro level, too: without coordination and compromise, you end up with situations where your neighbors decide it’s okay to feed wild bears that then lumber into your front yard:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/01/12/maskholio/#maskholes

The fantasy of escape from the needs of other is a fantasy of escape from empathy — and humanity — itself.

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include The Shakedown (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power; Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).

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