Hannes Grassegger of Das Magazin reports from the Blockchain Summit on Necker Island and discovers how the global economy is being overturned by men in flip flops.
A young woman waved from a red pier. The breeze pressed her short jumpsuit against her body. She waved with her right hand, while her left held her sunhat in place. The captain brought the speedboat about, the motor sputtered, and I jumped off.
“Welcome to Necker,” the woman breathed, “I’m Kezzia.” She turned, “Come with me.”
The air was that perfect temperature, somewhere in the low 80s, where you stop sensing your body and feel as though you are melting into the world. The crystal clear water of the Caribbean was just a few refreshing degrees cooler. The invitation said “Smart Casual”—so I wore a white dress shirt with my swim trunks.
After a 36-hour journey, I had finally reached my destination: an island that for ten years has been the permanent residence of British billionaire Sir Richard Branson. Kezzia led me to a golf cart parked in the sand. I couldn’t help thinking of a video I had seen in which one of Necker Island’s accountants cheerfully recounted serving as a human platter in a naked sushi dinner after finishing her office work. In one interview, Branson laughingly told of a new housekeeper on the island who wanted to institute a rule barring romantic relationships between employees and visitors. “It lasted exactly two days,” he said.
On Necker, there is no line between business and private life, at least for employees. For moments when Branson himself does not wish to be disturbed, he purchased the neighboring Mosquito Island. Only Larry Page, Branson’s kite-surfing buddy and CEO of Google, was recently allowed to buy himself a piece of land there.
The occasion of my trip was a gathering of two dozen of the entrepreneurs and radical anarcho-capitalists who make up the upper echelons of the bitcoin digital currency movement. The event took birth at a private evening on Necker Island, when the organizers of a kite surf event called MaiTai had asked Branson over a drink if he would be up for bringing together all the leading minds in bitcoin—on his island. “Sure,” he said. What exactly this was all about was unclear to me, but it seemed they were getting together to plan a coup. “We look forward to welcoming you to paradise,” the invitation to the Blockchain Summit proclaimed.
Only a select few dozen people received an invitation to the Necker Island summit. Originally, the group included a single woman. Following some concerned remarks on the internet, the organizers invited some more female guests. All had to undertake a strenuous journey, as the island lies on the easternmost edge of the British Virgin Islands, two hours east of Jamaica by plane. The entry fee alone was several thousand dollars per day.
I had already met a few of the participants on the way here. Standing at a kiosk on the beach waiting for a ferry, wearing jeans and a green t-shirt, was Michael Zeldin, 64, a prominent anti-money-laundering expert from the United States, familiar from his many appearances on CNN. Previously a US delegate to the G7, he is now “Special Counsel” to a law firm that represents 17 of the 20 largest US banks.
On the way to paradise. Photo: Hannes Grassegger
Next to him, dressed in swim trunks and holding a Carib beer, was Brock Pierce. Pierce, who claims to have invented the term “user-generated content,” rose from child star to millionaire tycoon of the old New Economy by age 17. While living in Spain, he built up an online-gaming empire by mining and selling virtual currencies and weapons in computer games, thereby becoming one of the most important early digital currency entrepreneurs. He told me over a drink that, as founder and managing partner of his own venture capital firm, he is currently an investor in 34 different companies.
Pierce, Zeldin, and I had received invitations to the Blockchain Summit, which was meant to bring together “the world’s greatest minds in digital innovation” to “define the future.” Essentially, what seemed to be happening was that a great deal of money and power were being gathered in the middle of the Caribbean, on a billionaire’s private island, for the purpose of plotting. The meeting would culminate in the second night’s “Blockchain Summit Final Dinner,” a networking event with a “cocktail reception and lemur feeding.”
The golf cart trundled just a few meters over a narrow, stone-lined sand track and stopped in front of a two-story wooden house. “The others are already up at lunch,” Kezzia said. “I suggest you get a drink, look around a bit, and then come join us.”
“Do I need money?” I asked.
She shook her head, laughing, and flitted away.
A bar-hopping lemur. Photo: Hannes Grassegger
From the second story I heard the murmur of guests at lunch. The ground floor was a kind of tropical pub, open on all sides. A large flatscreen played a tennis match. Reggae bubbled out from hidden speakers. On the central bar, a brown creature with a dog-like face and the body of a monkey suckled someone’s left-behind drink. Presumably this was one of the lemurs that Branson had brought over from Madagascar to save from extinction. He has introduced hundreds of species to the island in order to protect them: a “Greatest Hits” of nature. The lemur stared at me for a moment, then turned back to its drink.
Branson evidently had two things on his mind when establishing his island: sex and drinks. His villa was built in Bali, then disassembled, shipped, and erected on Necker’s highest point. A wooden hot tub is enthroned on the roof, behind which waves the flag of the British Virgin Islands, the Union Jack on a blue background with the motto, Vigilate: “Be vigilant.” From here one can see the entire island: the beach house, the tennis court, the two ponds, a handful of scattered love nests, and, in the distance, a few other islands. Next to the house is a shimmering green infinity pool that looks out on an endless Caribbean horizon.
Necker was also once the occasional refuge of Princess Diana. A handwritten letter to Branson testifies to her love of the place. Branson has occasionally used the island to stage ambitious meetings, such as when he brought together politicians and entrepreneurs, like Tony Blair and Larry Page, to save the world from climate change. As part of a proviso by the local government, Branson was required to build a resort here shortly after he bought it, in 1979 at the age of 28. For $65,000 a day, you can rent out the island for yourself and up to 29 of your friends. Below, I saw the solar panels that provide the island’s electricity. On a hidden pier, workers are unloading one of the boats that run constantly, supplying the island with everything it needs, including sunscreen and an energy drink called “Pussy.”
The infinity pool. Photo: Hannes Grassegger
We live in an age obsessed with progress, comparable to the end of the 19th century, when new technologies such as the railroad and the telephone were changing everything and generating previously undreamt-of riches. Our age, like that one, has seen an explosion in the number of the super-rich. Today, the Rockefellers are Zuckerberg, Page, Gates, and, well, Branson. There are currently around 1,800 billionaires, as measured in dollars. In the past few years, their fortunes have increased so massively that they have begun wondering what to do with all the money. At the same time, there is a valley near San Francisco full of technology entrepreneurs who need money—lots of money—for their business ventures.
The goal of these entrepreneurs is to rebuild existing industries with new technology, monopolize the market, and watch the profits roll in. They call this “disruption”—as Airbnb has done in the hotel industry, or Uber in the realm of taxis. The larger the target industry, the better. Google has built a whole “vertical,” X, for testing so-called “moonshots,” ideas so megalomaniacal that anyone would consider them impossible—anyone who did not have a few billion to spare on their realization, that is.
Winter is coming to the Valley soon, and it might be the first since the bubble burst first in 2001. This bubble bursting might not be as tough as the last one, most people in the tech industry hope, but who could say for sure. Nevertheless, when people congregated on the island, there was a feeling that new territories were needed for chasing unicorns—the startups that remake entire industries with multi-billion valuations and big payoffs for venture capitalists. It is just such a project that Richard Branson has in mind. With a net worth of $4.9 billion, he’s invested millions each in over a dozen startups around the globe, including $30 million in Blockchain, a popular bitcoin wallet and blockchain explorer service.
In his opening speech, Branson invited the guests to rate their business plans in terms of “Scale of Effect on Society.” This was accompanied by a musical interlude by star cellist Zoë Keating, who spent the rest of her stay on Necker Island excitedly posting snapshots of Branson’s giant tortoises on Instagram.
From the rooftop hot tub, I walked past a few terraces to reach a hall with a ceiling high enough to accommodate full-size palm trees. A disco ball hung from the ceiling. A few books with titles like An Optimist’s Tour of the Future or An Experiment in Industrial Democracy lay strewn across the landscape of cozy couches.
“Imagine experiencing the birth of the internet. That’s about how big this is.”
On the other side of the bar, several rows of wicker chairs were set up facing a flatscreen emblazoned with the words: “Blockchain Summit – The Vision.” It was clear to me that this was a gathering of people whose time is short and expensive. Such people do not meet just for fun, but perhaps also for fun.
Nor does Branson’s choice of residence seem accidental. Branson officially relocated to Necker in 2006 for health reasons, he has said. But the British Virgin Islands—or BVI, for short—of which Necker is one, are the most popular offshore tax haven in the world. By developing a complicated network of BVI companies, Branson pays few taxes in his native land. Many English children have heard of Necker Island. It is a dream island that represents the idea that an individual can beat the state.
To moderate the summit, the organizers booked one of the most renowned writers on finance technology, Wall Street Journal columnist Michael J. Casey, who last year published The Age of Crypto-Currency, a book on digital currencies like bitcoin and its underlying programming principle, the “blockchain.”
The blockchain, Casey explains in the book, is a register, a vast bank-book, a digital ledger, that lists every individual transfer of bitcoin. In contrast to our current money system, in which every bank maintains its own centralized register to verify whether the correct quantities of money are being moved, the blockchain decentralizes the verification, thereby creating a “shared common ledger” stored on every connected computer. Thus, the blockchain allows every bitcoin user to take on the functions of a bank.
But this is just incidental. The blockchain not only makes digital currency impossible to duplicate: In principle, Casey prophesied, the technology could even replace companies, law firms, and agencies whose main job is to manage assets. Lately, the Bitcoin community has been torn asunder by a debate over the future of the blockchain, and whether it can continue to grow as quickly and cheaply under its current design. But this was not a topic of discussion at the conference: the weather was more blue-sky.
Zipline time. Photo: Hannes Grassegger
Under a sun canopy on the beach, I encountered a bunch of men in their 30s. All are in shorts, rather pasty, with the beginnings of a paunch. A bearded giant by the name of Oliver Luckett played rap on the kind of small, tube-shaped boombox often used by teenagers in parks. He told how he recently bought a $10,000 Rolls Royce on Craigslist, only to torch it with flamethrowers for the rapper’s video. It went viral, since all the video’s participants already had so many followers on the web. “A bargain, right?” he asked. The others nodded. (Luckett’s company, the Audience, also ran Obama’s social media campaign for a time. Before that, he worked for Disney. In the digital empire, he is a Minister of Propaganda.)
Over on a sandbar, I saw a catamaran with a dozen people next to it. Perhaps Branson is there. “Do you want to try something?” one of the beach beaus asked. He led me over to a shack filled with surfboards, sails, and snorkels. On the wall hung a photo of Branson, grinning broadly for the camera, flying over the water as the wind blows his hair. He is on a surfboard, holding a kite-sail in front of him while a nude model hangs on him like a backpack.
A Dutchman in his 50s, who introduces himself as Marc, wanted to try paddleboarding, so I decided to join him. Marc invests in startups. He flew in from Vancouver. “Why did you come?” I asked him. The trainer positions the board on some calm water for us.
“Bitcoin is gradually turning into a serious thing,” Marc said as he tried to stand on the wobbly board. “Look at who’s here—a president of Samsung, a chief strategy officer of Ernst & Young. Did you hear that Obama’s favorite economist, Larry Summers, has gotten involved with a bitcoin bank? And the founder of Visa?”
In the tropical pub, I ran into Michael J. Casey. He looked like one of those classic American war reporters on TV with their oversize microphones, only that he is Australian. We ordered Painkillers, an excellent coconut-based cocktail, and started chatting.
“Since the crisis in 2008,” Casey said, “the financial system has been completely broken. They’ve tried to camouflage the fact by printing more dollars, but money is just a product, and now there’s a surplus of it. Look what’s happening in Switzerland. Negative interest rates. You’re actually paying to give someone money. Of course, people are looking to other assets, houses or whatever. But what are they supposed to use for currency?” Casey shook his head.
“The fundamental problem of the financial crisis was that everything was too interconnected,”he continued. “Centralization. Insanely enough, it’s gotten even worse. Meanwhile, the entire international economy depends on two central banks. Do you call that stable? Bitcoin is the alternative to this broken money system.”
As the evening cocktail reception approached, I walked back from the tropical pub to Branson’s villa with Luckett and an Australian man. The Australian took us to his room, which costs just over $2,000 per night. It’s a good price—typically, one must rent the entire island. For this budget rate, the Australian had to share the room with the elderly futurist Marshall Thurber. Out on the balcony, Casey filmed the sunset.
“It’s such a thrilling time,” he said. “Imagine experiencing the birth of the internet. That’s about how big this is.”
Capturing the sunset. Photos: Hannes Grassegger
The first guests had arrived the day before, but no one was really clear on the specifics of the program. Back at the big hall, Casey plopped onto a sofa next to a plump bald man in a wine-red polo shirt. He was telling the story of how he wrote the constitution of Peru. This was Hernando de Soto. An advisor to governments, de Soto may be Latin America’s most renowned stronghold of market capitalism, which he sees as a tool against any evil available, most recently terrorism.
When de Soto has a question about Russia, as Casey explains it, “Hernando” just calls Putin—and he picks up. Bill Clinton once called de Soto the “greatest living economist.” To ensure that Hernando could get to the meeting on time, the premier of the Virgin Islands personally faxed him a visa. De Soto has frighteningly strong, hairy arms, which he moves like a crab’s pincers. That morning, the Peruvian had primed the participants for their mission: to bring capitalism to life. For true capitalism does not yet exist.
Poverty, according to the theory that brought de Soto international fame, is not exploitation, but exclusion. In other words, people are unable to participate in capitalism because they have nothing to bargain with. Slum residents, for example, build huts but cannot own them, as there is no place and no law that will register them. If they had some kind of official paper, a certified claim to the property, a title, the hut would be worth something. They could sell it, or take on debt to start a business. To raise people out of poverty, therefore, their valuables must somehow be linked to them as individuals. They must have property rights.
In most countries, this is next to impossible. De Soto opened a folder of papers: the three dozen applications necessary to register a company in Peru. A “physical blockchain,” he said, that takes hundreds of days to process. If such situations were remedied, world poverty would end, and true capitalism would blossom. The participants were rapt.
Next to de Soto sat Brian Forde, a quiet man who until recently was Obama’s technology advisor. Now he is leading the Digital Currency Initiative at the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as traveling around the world convincing governments and companies to give the blockchain a try.
We were greeted at the dinner party by hundreds of screeching flamingos. A fire was burning, chefs stood at the buffet, and a long, white table was waiting. Other than the employees, almost no one followed the dress code, “Evening in White.” Most wore shorts. Suits are the mantel of civilization, too confining. Suddenly, a shark fin appeared in the sea behind the buffet. One of the guests giggled and tossed a chicken drumstick into the water. “Save Water, Drink Champagne,” his shirt read.
Flamingos at dinner. Photo: Hannes Grassegger
I sat across from Paul Brody, a slim executive from San Francisco with short, greying hair. Cheerfully, he spoke in a nasal voice of being wiped off the tennis court by Branson at seven in the morning. “Impressive for 65!” he said.
Brody had been trying out all of the island’s personal trainers. A little morning weightlifting, “all-inclusive.” I asked how much he paid to come here. “Hmm,” he calculated, “the company paid. My rate, which would be $36,000 for three days, plus the flight, plus accommodation here on the island, 8,000 … the participation fee. About $50,000.”
“No government in the world would be able to control bitcoin anymore”
Brody is a minor star in Silicon Valley. His husband negotiated Facebook’s purchase of Instagram. Brody himself had 6,000 people working under him at IBM, where his focus was the Internet of Things. Now he is the American “Strategy Leader” for Ernst & Young. Somehow we get onto the subject of cycling. “I love it!” he said. “I used to ride a lot until I was hit by a car. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t get on a bike again until there are only self-driving cars.” Our tablemate nodded enthusiastically: “People are too fallible. We have to take them out of the equation.”
Next to Brody sat Jeff Garzik, one of bitcoin’s longtime developers. At the moment, he is looking for investors to help him put mini-satellites into orbit for a special bitcoin network. “No government in the world would be able to control bitcoin anymore,” he said.
Later, I ran into a group of people lounging on a sofa, passing around an e-cigarette filled with liquid marijuana. One of them, part of Branson’s service team, told me that it takes 120 people to keep the island running every day, or about three staff members per guest. He said he earned $1,200 a month—Brody’s hourly rate.
Around nine o’clock the next morning, there was a breakfast buffet: bacon, eggs, tomatoes, croissants, and kale juice to detox; fair-trade granola bars and champagne bottles with a golden label that read, “Sir Richard Branson’s Private Island.” Over at the muesli bowl, I found myself suddenly face-to-face with Branson himself.
“Hi!” he said, with a friendly smile. Tan and wearing a grey t-shirt and swim trunks, he has a surfer’s lion-gold, almost neon-ish mane, which goes well with his large mouth and huge teeth bordered by a darker goatee. He grabbed a glass of fruit juice and walked away with his muesli. I followed him to a veranda with a long wooden table, plenty big enough for the thirty people who are staying in Branson’s villa.
The blockchain would, in essence, allow capitalism to more fully move into the realm of the internet.
The life of a billionaire, I had begun to understand, is like a reality TV competition. De Soto, Forde, Casey, and Luckett sat around Branson, all of them trying to sell him on their projects and plans in as few sentences as possible. This is an “elevator pitch”: the 90 seconds one has to try to convince the investor of a lifetime to join in a business venture. Branson, with an estimated worth of five billion dollars and a reputation for wild business ideas, is an amazing opportunity. An elevator manufacturer once suggested to Branson that he install one here on the island expressly for elevator pitches.
Branson listened calmly, eating his muesli and sipping coffee. Now and then, he asked a question in his gentle voice. His pronounced stutter is well under control. When he tried to go back to the buffet, he couldn’t make it more than a few meters without being detained, to listen to a new idea or to pose for a photo that will immediately be posted online, thereby increasing the market value of the person posing with him.
Lunch with Richard. Photo: Hannes Grassegger
At around ten, we arrived at the main event. The 35 attendees, who include seven women, gather around the flatscreen in the big hall. Some of them have prepared short presentations. Brody, the star executive, explains that in the near future practically everything will be online.
“Every toaster will have a chip like this one here,” he said, holding up his iPhone. “This chip has more processing power than the first iPhone,” he added enthusiastically. “This device could connect to the net. And what happens to things when they go online? We record their usage, start measuring their capacity, and try to increase it. Like fitness, thanks to Fitbit wristbands that count our steps. Like apartments, that we sublet on Airbnb when we’re away. Like cars, that you can rent when they’re not being used.”
“Unused potential is everywhere,” Brody continued. If there were a method for indexing this potential and trading with it, the market would be “tremendous, unbelievable.” The blockchain, he said, is precisely the tool to manage an “internet of value,” in which “everything” would be tradeable. De Soto beamed.
The blockchain would, in essence, allow capitalism to more fully move into the realm of the internet. This has always failed in the past, because in digital environments, everything is so easy to copy. Therefore nothing is scarce, which is why digital content, like music, images, and text, is almost always free, or extremely protected. The blockchain’s comprehensive ability to allocate each piece of code within its system could completely eliminate the possibility of copying a song, for example, because who has which digital copy when would be traceable. A digital magazine based on the blockchain system would have unique copies, just like a printed magazine. It could be bought and sold like a physical object.
Next, a long-haired computer scientist named Patrick Deegan demonstrated one of the idea’s applications. He’s used blockchain to create digital passports that allow people to register their possessions. Deegan talks about “smart contracts”: digital agreements that execute themselves automatically, like leased cars that will not start if the installment has not been paid. Administrative staff would be unnecessary. Deegan is optimistic. The blockchain, it seems, could automate bureaucracy. It could replace millions of employees. A moonshot. Most recently, he said, the world’s most powerful banks have formed a consortium named R3 to employ such ideas.
All of this dramatically serves the common good, most of the speakers say during their presentations. One speaker invoked the visionary architect Buckminster Fuller, a kind of Abraham in the epic of Silicon Valley. He handed out Fuller’s bible, Spaceship Earth, and told how “Bucky” passed on his mission in his last days: “On personal integrity hangs humanity’s fate.” He then presented a rating system for humans in which people are continually evaluated. Like the taxi service Uber, where customers rate drivers and drivers rate customers, but for all of life, visible to everyone.
The problem for the guests, it seems, is that the business case for Buckys vision is not obvious. The reactions in the audience were mixed. Friendly applause.
To conclude, Luckett—the Rolls Royce burner—demonstrated that the development of the internet and the blockchain are not only spiritually correct, but deeply natural. Nature too is organized in networks. As proof, he showed pictures of networks of mushrooms next to visualizations of social media networks. The applause was frenetic. During a short pause, the participants gathered on the giant chess terrace for a 3D group picture. As the picture-snapping drone approached from the blue skies, everyone raised their arms in a group cheer.
Preparing for a drone selfie. Photo by Hannes Grassegger
At lunch, served in the lower pool, the mood was euphoric. As I sank into the water, a girl launched a little boat laden with drinks in my direction. “Sake cocktail?” Next came a flower-bedecked kayak filled with sushi. A French star-chef served cuisine in his swim trunks. From the palm-leaf-covered pool bar I hear electro-pop duo Ratatat's “Cream on Chrome.”
“When everything goes through the blockchain … I could fire half my team. Lawyers, notaries, bankers—they just do what the blockchain does automatically."
Over coconut water at the bar, I talked to an investment banker with gelled blond hair. He was high.
“Fantastic, man!” he said. “My business is number one at getting money out of China. It’s complicated as hell, nothing but regulations, transparency, and limits. Huge monitoring costs … I think efficiency is going to increase tremendously.”
“How?” I asked.
“When everything goes through the blockchain … I could fire half my team,” he beams. “Lawyers, notaries, bankers—they just do what the blockchain does automatically.” Then a woman in a tight black dress with a huge floppy hat stole his attention. The party guests have arrived.
The fresh fish was excellent, and must have been flown in from far away, as a strange virus had made the local fish inedible. A dark-haired man in his mid-thirties paddled near me. He trades in bitcoin and commutes between London and France. His eyes gleamed.
“Huge sectors of government do nothing but manage assets and execute contracts,” the man said. “Not just the central banks, but the passport agencies, registration offices, land registries for real estate. All of that will be unnecessary.” As a senior venture capitalist sunk into the water next to us, still holding his Blackberry, the man whispered conspiratorially, “C’est une revolution.”
We climbed out of the pool, and a thin young Arab man stood before me. “Salaam,” he said with a smile.
“He’s from the Emirates,” my new friend explained as we walk toward the beach. “He could be the first big blockchain investor from there. He might be richer than Branson. In any case, Branson forbid him from bringing his bodyguards to the island.”
On the beach, I grabbed a snorkel. I swam along the ocean floor, passing a ball-shaped creature. It was half a meter wide and pulsing. Strange, large fish were everywhere.
Around seven, I met Tina Hui, who runs a social media site about bitcoin. She posts updates constantly, even while doing her makeup.
“I can’t ever look bad,” she said, “I’m always online.” Tina was one of the few women added to the guest list after the organizers were criticized for inviting only men. The others included an aerospace engineer who works for Branson’s spaceship company, a famous attorney, and Elizabeth Rossiello, the CEO of Nairobi-based BitPesa, which provides transfer between bitcoin and local currencies in Africa.
This is great for the currency’s reputation, the thinking goes, as bitcoin will never be adopted by the masses as long as it is seen as money for internet gangsters. To the same end, that morning an inconspicuous gentleman with an extreme comb-over and an apricot linen shirt—previously employed by the Department of Justice—had suggested cooperation with “state agencies.” A strategic cease-fire, so to speak.
By the beach. Photo: Hannes Grassegger
We made it to the tropical pub just in time. The chef had prepared a Moroccan-style meal, perhaps in honor of the event's special Middle Eastern guest. The table is U-shaped. There were now some seventy guests on the island. I spotted Brock Pierce, Michael Zeldin, and several ladies in dresses. Torches were stuck in the sand. Rosé from New Zealand was poured. Across from me sat Ted Rogers, who looks like the captain of a rowing team. Rogers is president of the bitcoin vault Xapo, which Larry Summers joined after ending his candidacy for president of the Federal Reserve.
Bitcoin entrepreneurs have to get out of the pirates’ islands, Rogers said, and into "clean" countries. Xapo has one of its legal headquarters in Argentina, another one in Switzerland. “Switzerland could become the home of bitcoin,” he suggested. He finds the culture of privacy and the hands-off government optimal. “And the legislators are reasonable, too. You can talk to them.” He had just explained that there is an important community of bitcoin supporters in the Swiss town of Zug when Branson appeared.
Zug, a small town of 30,000 inhabitants, was once Switzerland’s capital of offshore banking. Thanks to its free-market reputation, it has recently become one of the world’s leading hubs for the cryptocurrency folks. Nevertheless it’s so boring that Xapo actually resettled half an hour north, in Zürich, Switzerland’s busiest town. In January Xapo’s CEO Wences Casares joined Paypal’s board.
There are two kinds of billionaire. One makes money off the system. Branson makes money off its destruction.
Cello music wafted over the tennis court and the guests reclined on pillows arranged in a semi-circle, while Branson sat enthroned on a sofa with the sheikh to his left. The cellist Zoë Keating left the stage. De Soto stands. His act is next. And for a brief moment, Branson was alone.
“Sir,” I said. He bows. “You signed the Sex Pistols.”
He nodded, baring his teeth to smile. At the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, Branson chartered a boat on the Thames, on which the punk band famously mocked the monarch. The police got involved, of course, and the media was there, filming everything. The scandal put the Sex Pistols’ single on the charts and made Branson a lot of money. There are two kinds of billionaire. One makes money off the system. Branson makes money off its destruction.
“Is it still all about the same thing as back then?” I asked. “Against the state, against banks?”
“Sure, man. You got it,” Sir Richard grinned. He raised his hand for a high five.
“Capital!” cried de Soto. He made a fist, scanning the crowd. “The word comes from Caesar’s head on Roman coins. From caput—head.” His voice was strong, and even the cellist was listening. “This head is the power.” De Soto raised his fist. “And this head is you.”
Branson looked like a boy seeing his model airplane lift off the ground for the first time. De Soto pointed to his audience, and said: “You’re part of the creation of a new capital.”
“Yes!” Branson said from his divan. “Yes!” and he began to clap. The others joined him and the applause nearly filled the island.
The closing beach party was a flop.
Hannes Grassegger is an economist based in the financial capital of Zürich, Switzerland, who skipped investment banking to become the leading German reporter on digital life (Digitales Leben, as they call it). He is the author of Das Kapital bin Ich (I am Capital), a pamphlet on how to screw the NSA plus all other secret services and make a dime from it, too. Follow him on Twitter @HNSGR. This article first appeared in German in Das Magazin.