There was a time not so long ago when buying a private island and secluding yourself within it was enough to place you in the league of extraordinary Bond villains. But that doesn’t cut it any more. There are simply too many billionaires and too many private islands.
Today, property ambitions need to be bolder if they’re going to make an impact, especially for the top 1 per cent of the top 1 per cent. Billionaires worth their salt are looking instead to realise the more fantastical real estate concepts that really stretched Ian Fleming’s imagination, such as secret lairs inside volcanoes, space colonies and mini sovereign states.
Take Peter Thiel, the 46-year-old freedom-loving US venture capitalist and entrepreneur. The everyday billionaire’s property portfolio includes rudimentary mansions in Los Angeles and Hawaii. But his more ambitious plans are focused on seasteading, the concept of building private floating islands from scratch.
The real objective here – in a nod to Karl Stromberg, the villain in the 1977 film The Spy Who Loved Me, who had a penchant for creating new civilisations under the sea, is the formation of a quasi-sovereign nation that floats in international waters. Of course, it won’t be Thiel’s private island entirely – he’s only an investor – but at this stage it’s not unimaginable that, if seasteading is a success, this could give rise to a new specialist property industry: custom-made, high-end island building.
Next, consider the property ambitions of Elon Musk, 42, whom we may easily describe as the modern day Hugo Drax – the bearded villain from the Roger Moore classic Moonraker (1979). Bel Air mansions aside, Musk’s ultimate labour of love is finding a way to colonise Mars, something he’s going about by building space rockets with his company SpaceX.
OK, it’s not that sinister. Musk says his projects are motivated by a desire to push mankind forwards – coincidentally, so did Drax.
Over in Silicon Valley, Larry Page, 41, revealed in a keynote speech in 2013 that he wants to “set apart a piece of the world” as a sort of Google experimentation island “where we can try out new things and figure out the effect on society”.
With their campus feel, the corporate headquarters of Google in Mountain View, California, already resemble a small private fiefdom of which Google is the sovereign master.
But it’s not only in the mega billionaire league where things are becoming increasingly outlandish. In London, the penthouses and town houses that have conventionally drawn the big real estate money, are losing out to dirt. Anyone who is anyone in the capital is digging downwards in what could be considered a homage to the subterranean city lair of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor in Superman.
The outlandish nature of the excavation doesn’t stop there. Earlier this month the New Statesman reported that not only is digging downwards more popular than ever, it’s now become more economic to leave the JCB that excavated your lair entombed in the walls of your underground cinema than to bring it back up again. As the article reported: “The time and money expended on rescuing a digger were better spent moving on to the next big deal.”
Which raises the question: if good old-fashioned property is not enough, as Bond fans might say, whatever can we expect next?
So here is a personal prediction based on the hypothetical presumption that wealth inequality may only get worse before it gets better in the next few years. More so, that nothing will be done about redistribution because of an overly optimistic belief that as the rich get richer, their wealth trickles down throughout the economy as well.
On that basis alone, it’s increasingly possible that in the not-too-distant future, if you’re not one of the elite you’ll more than likely end up being a servant to them in some shape or form – or, at the very least, in a position where your livelihood is linked entirely to their upkeep.
Whether such a state of affairs can be described as a return to serfdom or just watered-down feudalism is debatable. Still, the ancient Greek theory of anacyclosis comes to mind. This is the idea that political systems are never as permanent as we like to think they are and tend to move fluidly through benign phases to malignant states, focused on shifts from monarchy to tyranny, aristocracy to oligarchy and democracy to ochlocracy. Each transition brings with it a cyclical move from rule of the many, to rule of the few or rule of the one.
Which is another way of saying that the bolder and more outrageous the property aspirations of billionaires get, and the more people these properties require to serve them, the greater the likelihood we’re actually witnessing the coming to pass of a new monarchic class.
Izabella Kaminska is a reporter for FT Alphaville
Illustration by Clare Mallison