Peter Thiel – a militant of the capital

Image: John Guccione


The Silicon Valley tycoon uses his billions to play politics, hoping to emancipate the rich from "working-class exploitation of capitalists"

He's not as rich as Jeff Bezos, or a social media star like Elon Musk, or an icon like Bill Gates. However, he is the most interesting of Silicon Valley tycoons, as more than anyone else he embodies the new generation of capitalist ideologues. Instead of using politics to make money, he uses his billions to play politics, hoping to emancipate the rich from "the workers' exploitation of capitalists".

Peter Thiel is German by birth, American and South African by upbringing. According to Forbes, he is worth $4,2 billion. Unlike his peers, he is equipped with a degree in philosophy and a doctorate in law; therefore, he likes to show off and affect as if he were a philosopher king. In his most ambitious text, The Straussian Moment (2004), he outlines a kind of intellectual history of the world (Geistes Weltgeschichte) in light of 11/XNUMX. There, as a carefully cultivated intellectual, he outrageously quotes Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, Pierre Manent, Roberto Calasso and Machiavelli, Montaigne, Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Nietzsche and Kojève.

Since his university days, Peter Thiel has been dedicated to maintaining a kind of cynical position, always embracing the most conservative one possible (he has been an admirer of Ronald Reagan since high school). According to his biographer Max Chafkin, Peter Thiel always felt that “traditional liberals had embraced communists and that conservatives were unable to associate with people on the extreme right… He really wanted the right to become more like the left. ”.

Enrolling at Stanford, the most reactionary of top universities, Peter Thiel spent his time criticizing what he saw as the institution's endemic leftism. He helped found the Stanford Review with the blessing of conservative guru Irving Kristol and with financial support from the Olin Foundation (a key entity in funding and organizing the neoliberal counter-offensive). He campaigned against multiculturalism, political correctness and homosexuality. The magazine's editorial board was composed exclusively of men.

Regarding LGBT rights, the magazine stated that “the real scourge consists of the phobia of homophobia, that is, the fear of being labeled homophobic… Anti-gay prejudice should be renamed “miso-sodomy” – hatred of anal sex – to focus on "deviant sexual practices". According to the magazine The Economist,, the article even defended a fellow law student, Keith Rabois, who decided to test the limits of free speech on campus by standing outside a professor's residence and shouting “Fag! I hope you die of AIDS!” Keith Rabois would later become one of Peter Thiel's closest business partners.

Peter Thiel was co-author of the article The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford (1995), published by a “think-tank” on the right, the Independent Institute, thanks again to a grant from the Olin Foundation. Recognized as a formidable chess player, Peter Thiel understood that to fight the battle of ideas effectively, adequate funding was needed. He complained that “only one in four Stanford alumni were millionaires” – further proof, in his view, of the uselessness of the traditional academic curriculum.

After brief stints as a lawyer and derivatives trader in Credit Suisse, Thiel returned to California in 1998 and founded his own investment fund, the Thiel Capital Management, with $1 million raised thanks to “friends and family” (in all biographies this episode is vague; as we know, the first million is always the hardest).

The turning point came in 1999, when Peter Thiel founded PayPal with a group of friends (thanks especially to Max Levchin, a Ukrainian-born cryptographer who devised the basic algorithm for the online payment system). This economic enterprise also had an ideological motivation: “PayPal's driving ideal” – he wrote – was to create “a new world currency, free from all governmental control – the end of State monetary sovereignty, so to speak”.

Thus, the so-called PayPal mafia was formed: a famous photo portrays the audacious young men (all men) dressed as Italian-American mobsters from the time of the prohibition in the United States. Six would become billionaires. It is notable that three had a background in apartheid South Africa: Thiel, Musk and Roelof Botha, CEO of PayPal, later a partner in the Sequoia investment fund. Peter Thiel has an uneasy relationship with Elon Musk: among other things, he removed him as CEO of PayPal when it was on its honeymoon.

Peter Thiel made $55 million with PayPal in 2002 when he launched into the world of venture capital. The list of companies he has invested in is extensive (Airbnb, Asana, LinkedIn, Lyft, Spotify, Twilio, Yelp, Zynga). His reputation as a shrewd capitalist was cemented in 2004 when, as the first outside investor, he gave (a mere) $500 to Mark Zuckerberg in exchange for a 10,2% stake in Facebook, which netted him more than a billion. of dollars.

If, however, instead of keeping his stake, he had participated in Facebook's recapitalization, he would now have around $60 billion. That wasn't his only mistake. In 2004, he refused to invest in Tesla and YouTube (both of which were founded by former members of the PayPal mafia). In 2006, when Elon Musk needed funds to develop Tesla's electric cars, Peter Thiel missed the opportunity - an expensive option, as the capitalization surpassed US$ 2 billion in 2010 and peaked at US$ 1,061 billion in 2021, a growth of 50 (as of April 2023, it had dropped to $584 billion, but still represents an increase of nearly 30 percent). Musk claimed that Peter Thiel's refusal was for ideological reasons: "he doesn't fully buy the climate change thing".

But what does Peter Thiel buy to sell? Between 2004 and 2014, he exposed his worldview at conferences, in articles for the Wall Street Journal, in the book The Straussian Moment, in essays like The education of a libertarian (2009) written for the Cato Institute (one "think-tank” funded by the Koch brothers), in writing The End of the Future published in National Review; Furthermore, he wrote another book entitled Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future (2014) based on a course he taught at Stanford.

In typical trickster play, Peter Thiel often presents himself and his allies as victims. Like the French who say they are victims of the North Africans, or like the Israelis who say they are oppressed by the Palestinians, the rich are intimidated by the poor. Like any reactionary, he circulates a tale of decadence. For Peter Thiel, we are in full cultural decline, “ranging from the collapse of art and literature after 1945 to the soft totalitarianism of political correctness in the media and academia to the sordid worlds of “reality shows” and popular entertainment”.

The root cause is democracy, in particular its extension to women and the poor (note the association between the two): “The 1920s were the last decade of American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about democracy. policy. Since the 1920s, the large increase in welfare recipients and the extension of women's suffrage – two electoral contingents notoriously difficult for libertarians to penetrate – have turned the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.

Among his assertions, there is one that states that the expansion of the vote to women and the poor has hindered technological and scientific progress, which, in the past, allowed the generalization of a certain quality of life, even for those who did not deserve it. Since the 1970s – with the exception of the technology industry – everything has stagnated; there were no major innovations in transportation, energy, or even medicine. As Peter Thiel concludes that progress is “rare” in human history, he thought of a solution: we need to go back to some kind of monarchical regime, because the great inventions in history were all produced by companies (or startups) that function as monarchies absolute or monopolies.

Peter Thiel's publicity efforts are often devoted to extolling the converging virtues of monarchy and monopoly: “Monopolists can afford to think about other things besides making money; non-monopolists do not have this privilege. In perfect competition, a company is so focused on profit margins to be achieved today that it cannot plan for the long-term future. Only one thing can allow a company to transcend the brute daily struggle for survival: monopoly profits”.

In a typical intervention produced for the Wall Street Journal, Competition is for losers, he argued that competition can produce copies or small improvements on what already exists, but never a true novelty – based on this “fact”, he then argued that “in fact, capitalism and competition are opposites”.

It seems almost pointless to note the logical inconsistencies in these arguments. Peter Thiel maintains that progress is rare in human history and that absolute monarchies have been the norm; from this – he concludes – it can only be deduced that absolute monarchies rarely generated progress. But it is necessary to do it.

Monopolies do not come out of nowhere, but arise precisely when a company beats its competitors. It might be said, in fact, that in an unregulated market monopoly is an inevitable result of competition: competing implies winners and losers, and as the winner becomes more and more successful, it becomes easier for he dominate. That is why in the proto-history of capitalism in each country, we see the emergence of monopolies. To prevent their formation, it has always been necessary for States to implement antitrust laws. Furthermore, as soon as they are established, monopolies stop innovating and tend to live on rent.

Now there is an even more fundamental contradiction here. How can anyone declare themselves a libertarian and support absolute monarchy? Whose freedom is he talking about? How many monopolies can the world accommodate? Freedom for the few, slavery for the vast majority – that is destiny. Many have discussed Nietzsche's influence on Peter Thiel's thought, but perhaps the most accurate reference is Max Stirner.

No wonder, in Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1844), Stirner defines the "Unique" or "Ego" by its "property"; he can use any means - fraud, deceit - to realize his power. Also for Stirner, free competition is a limitation of freedom, since it can only be ensured by a State that generates servitude. How to be against state tyranny and in favor of absolute monarchy: the most despotic, intrusive and arbitrary type of state? The answer is Stirner's notion of the absolute instrumentality of each position. The One can say whatever he wants if it's useful to him. Peter Thiel has been accused of inconsistency and self-contradiction, but he is just putting that Stirner strategy into practice.

One example: Peter Thiel spends his time denigrating Stanford and higher education in general. Well, he does this by funding, with much fanfare, a foundation for students who dropped out of college to found their own startups – with extremely limited results. However, he paid money to teach a course at that same university, which in turn allowed him to publish a best-selling book under the Stanford brand (the actual number of copies sold remains uncertain: one million, one and a half million, even three million according to various claims, but the actual number could be much lower).

Another example: Peter Thiel spent his youth berating gays only to come out as such, in 2016, then marrying a man and, simultaneously, admitting to a romantic relationship with a male model. If the blatant homophobia of his time as a student can be attributed in part to a crusade against diversity, it's less clear why Peter Thiel would sue the site. Gawker for expelling him in 2011. The explanation offered by his biographer is that among the main investors in Peter Theil's equity venture are “Arab sovereign wealth funds controlled by governments that considered homosexuality a crime”.

This libertarian advocate of absolute monarchy also has no qualms about making money through mass surveillance. In 2003, he founded Palantir, which specializes in big data analytics, and immediately received funding from the CIA's investment fund, In-Q-Tel. Contradiction?

Em The Straussian Moment, Peter Thiel wrote: “Instead of the United Nations, filled with endless and inconclusive parliamentary debates that resemble Shakespearean tales told by bureaucrats, we must praise Echelon, the secret coordination of the world's intelligence services, as the decisive path to a truly global American peace.” Echelon is the most intrusive planetary surveillance mechanism ever devised in human history.

The company Palantir failed until, in 2011, a rumor began to circulate that the company had “helped kill Osama Bin-Laden”. From there, contracts abounded. Even the German police went looking for their services, which include not only software but also the manpower to use it (the Germans have changed their minds and want to terminate the deal). Paradox of capitalist profitability, Palantir is valued at US$ 17,6 billion – without ever having generated a profit – and today forms the most substantial part of Peter Thiel's fortune.

On the one hand, this libertarian makes money by helping the state spy on people; on the other, he promotes Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies as instruments of emancipation from the tyranny of states. This is not about inconsistency or contradiction: it is about pure and simple cynicism. Even his self-image as a “contra guy” is part of the game, as the goal is to present himself as part of an oppressed minority, a outsider, an underdog, an anti-conformist. But what kind of anticonformity is it to want to become rich and powerful? Even the defense of monopoly is perfectly in line with this Zeitgeist: think of the rehabilitation of monopoly by neoliberals, the veritable “corporate law revolution” guided by Henry Manne.

It is true that this total lack of scruples recalls the attitude of the Nietzschean superman, Ubermensch, for whom everything is permitted. Peter Thiel's rant against political correctness echoes Nietzsche's lament, in The genealogy of morals, referring to the revolt of slave morality: “the superior man is liquidated, the morality of the common man emerges victorious”.

His clear desire is to assist a permanent secession, not that of the plebs against the patriciate, as occurred in ancient Rome (as in Menenius Agrippa's fable), but of the patriciate against the plebs. Hence the acquisition of a 477-acre property in New Zealand and the financing of a project to build a self-sufficient community located far away in international waters. However, this project, after serious mishaps, first reduced its ambitions (to operate 15 miles from the coast), and then was completely shelved. This separatist impulse is also present in his investment in Space-X with Elon Musk: Peter Thiel is much less lukewarm about the idea of ​​isolating himself in space than he is about “the climate change thing”.

However, the question arises: what is all this for? The price of nihilism is the lack of meaning in one's own life, in one's own problems, in wanting to go to the tomb laden with gold. It is not surprising that fear of death seems to be a dominant motivation in these types of people.

As the movie shows the seventh seal (1957), by Ingmar Bergman, there is a knight and he risks his last game of chess against death. Peter Thiel, consummate chess player, believes that death is "nothing but a bug in humanity's resource pool and that someone like him can buy his way out." That's why he throws money bags at ventures like Halcyon Molecular, Emerald Therapeutics, Unity Biotechnology, Methuselah Foundation, funding startups that promise to extend life to at least 120 years, the ultimate cure for Alzheimer's, and so on.

And if all that doesn't work, he's ready to have his brain frozen and wait for his reincarnation as soon as technology makes it possible. He's not the only billionaire hoping to outrun death; Jeff Bezos and Larry Page fund the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, “which freezes the bodies and brains of the dead since 1970”.

The contempt Peter Thiel has for the rest of humanity must be almost equal to the loathing he seems to have for the female gender. He faithfully believes that we slaves are so masochistic that we are ready to accept his morality. If he succeeds, he will be the first political activist to win his audience over by promising nothing in particular, but by guaranteeing hell as the only future we – the herd – deserve. The name that was coined for this new manifestation of global capitalism is indeed apt: Dark Enlightenment. Turning off the lights is, in fact, the inevitable result.

*Marco D'Eramo is a journalist. Author, among other books, of The Pig and the Skyscraper (To).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the blog of New Left Review [].

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