Philosophies of Despair

Bradley Garrett, Bunker: Building for the End Times

Allen Lane, 352pp, £20.00, ISBN 9780241336014

reviewed by Calum Barnes

It wasn’t until we crested the hill that we first caught sight of the angular concrete protuberances perched atop the farmer’s field. After a tense standoff with a territorial cow and her young calf, my friend and I cautiously approached the largest of them. The rusted metal lid did not resist our tugs and balanced open on its trestle joint hinge to reveal a mounted steel ladder descending into darkness. At the bottom, my phone torch shone a light on what resembled a rudimentary office. Strewn across the desk were myriad forms, to record radiac doses, nuclear bursts and equipment tests. The equipment was long gone and according to an open jotter, the last official visit was on the 24th June 1991. The temptation to hunker down and add another entry was not far from my mind.

This Royal Observer Corp Monitoring Post was one of over a thousand across the UK, manned by volunteers to report from in the event of nuclear attack until the breakup of the Soviet Union. Entering this hidden remnant of the Cold War felt discomfortingly appropriate as the second wave of coronavirus was just rearing its head, its bureaucratic ephemera both terrifying and numbing like the tabulation of death statistics that glide across our screens daily. Cold War nostalgia has of course been the rage for a while, whether that be the hauntological subculture represented by Ghost Box records, or more mainstream iterations like Stranger Things. These cultural expressions of a general apocalyptic ambience are always comfortably sealed in the past, tantalisingly hinting at a nuclear holocaust that thankfully never came to pass. As an invisible killer stalked the land, these anxieties were no longer mere background radiation.

With uncanny synchronicity, 2020 saw a slew of books that took these fears head on. Mark O’Connell’s Notes From the Apocalypse and Adam Roberts’ It’s the End of the World But What Are We Really Afraid Of anatomise the political and cultural roots while Don DeLillo’s The Silence and Jenny Offill’s Weather traversed the interior contours of the apocalyptic psyche in our current historical juncture. In Bunker, Bradley Garrett takes us on a gonzo tour of the physical infrastructure being built to shelter the, invariably, wealthy from their worst dystopian imaginings, what he dubs ‘the architecture of dread.’

The bunkers that Garrett find though are far away from the makeshift office hastily buried under a hill that I had broken into. His journey begins in the vast Burlington Bunker in Corsham built by the British government, covering the area of 25 football fields complete with TV studio, telephone exchange and lake, a veritable subterranean city. Now on the market, it has attracted the attention of one Robert Vicino, a prepper privateer investing in arks for the salvation of humanity.

Robert Vicino becomes an archetype of the ‘dread merchants’, the classic voluble salesman bursting with braggadocio. At their first meeting, Vicino bores Garrett into submission with a well-rehearsed litany of disasters that are set to befall the earth any day now before inviting him to his primary site, xPoint, in South Dakota where he leased 575 concrete bunkers which had been originally built by the US government for munitions storage during the Second World War. This exemplifies the trajectory that Garrett goes on to trace, from the government bunkers and DIY garden shelters of the Cold War to the blossoming of the new prepper industry of luxury condo facilities and mobile militarised bunkers fuelled by venture capital.

What becomes palpable is a particular religious character to these doomster capitalists. They often come across as charismatic fire and brimstone preachers with unhinged vatic sermons which are merely slick PR for the postapocalyptic real estate ventures they are hawking. Prepper culture is coterminous with the rise of the American evangelical right, growing from the same eschatological ferment. It is even embedded in institutional Christianity, as Garrett explores in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Utah, but what is more fascinating is the way that bunker enterprises often operate like religions themselves with their shadowy hierarchies. A running theme is Garrett struggling to pin down the CEOs of these companies for interview, giving off the aura of elusive hierophants. One has even written prophetic scripture: Drew Miller’s self-published dystopian novel Rohan Nation: Reinventing America After the 2020 Collapse, in which an apocalypse by electromagnetic pulse is preceded by a pandemic. With the continued collapse in faith in political and economic systems, these entrepreneurs have stepped into the fray with mythical aspirations, describing how they are going to bring about a brave new world with millenarian zeal, a role that politicians have long retreated from.

The doomstead visions the dread merchants sell, though, are often contradictory, proceeding from a patchwork techno-libertarianism. Trident Lakes in Texas aims to be self-sufficient, with grand plans to generate its own energy from solar panels, recycle its own water and install a large-scale composting system. When Garrett questions the CEO Jim O’Connor on how he is funding this, he reveals he is investing in coal and lithium mining, fuelling the very crises they are offering last resort refuge from. O’Connor seems unfazed by this. ‘Trident Lakes is not driven by ideology . . . We’re driven by what’s possible today, not politics.’

Garrett identifies the ideological bible of preppers as The Sovereign Individual, cited by Peter Thiel, perhaps the most famous Silicon Valley prepper, as the book he is most influenced by. Written in 1997 by William Rees-Mogg, former Times editor and father of parliamentarian Jacob, and investor James Dale Davison, it prophesies that the rise of the internet will entail the inexorable decline of the nation-state and facilitate the creation of a ‘cognitive elite’ that will be able to circumvent the tyranny of taxation and unleash a true free market utopia that can dispense with social obligations.

If these vanguardist venture capitalists are dragging forth this glimmering libertarian future, the prospects for the survival of humanity do not look particularly promising. One of the enterprises that Garrett follows in the book is Hardened Structures, who boast of their various doomsday projects. As he attempts to track down any of their built successes it becomes apparent that it is a mere mirage of sleek marketing, mostly existing as CGI rendered models with biblical names. It transpires that the founder of Trident Lakes has been arrested on charges of money laundering. The cognitive elite seem more adept at seeding funds than seeding the future of civilisation.

A particularly curious facet of these attempts to excavate the origins of contemporary apocalypticism is how the authors are as much dissecting their own obsessions with the end of the world. Garrett is very much feeling through his own pathologies as much as his putative subjects. We, the readers, are as much implicated in the voyeuristic thrill of the author’s survey of prepper culture, guiltily having to contend with the attraction of such philosophies of despair. Therein lies the central tension of these narratives: maintaining a fragile optimism that is always under siege from our more alluring dark fantasies, which such preppers only serve to titillate.

In some ways it is not surprising that the postscript leads Garrett to the exclusion zone of Chernobyl. After the odyssey through the dystopian imaginary its natural terminus is the emblem of the real, extant postapocalyptic landscape. It is not just mere coincidence that Mark O’Connell’s book also ends in Pripyat, amid the ruins of 20th-century ideologies that dreamt of a future of endless growth and exploitation of the earth’s resources with no repercussions. Such hubris survives into the prepper solutions to the overlapping crises of our era, but their hopeless strivings provide an index in negative of the collective political failures of facing the less cinematically impressive but very real global challenges of the coming century. One of Garrett’s companions on his sojourn into the radiated wilderness remarks that this is ‘like walking through a lost civilization, except it’s our own’. Unless the future is wrested from the libertarian fantasies of the dread merchants, it may very well become our fate.

Calum Barnes is a writer and bookseller based in Edinburgh.