Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley's Pursuit of Power
by max chafkin
penguin, 400 pages, $28
Not so long ago, liberal opinion was smitten with Silicon Valley’s “disruptive” agenda. Pundits, journalists, and officials all proclaimed the democratizing power of digital platforms, which they saw (dubiously) as the force behind the Arab Spring. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton placed “internet freedom” at the center of foreign policy, and President Barack Obama issued Silicon Valley–esque bromides about “smart government” in the State of the Union. In the same period, left-leaning reporters and academics praised the merry-prankster antics of Anonymous—a loose organization of self-identified trolls united mainly by opposition to all restrictions on free expression online.
In the wake of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump, the liberal media and political class changed their views. Suddenly, the risk was no longer that foreign dictators would crack down on “internet freedom”; it was that the excessive freedom offered by the internet would lead Western nations to embrace dangerous extremist ideologies. Anonymous message boards such as 4Chan, previously celebrated as spaces of amorphous rebellion, were now viewed as toxic breeding grounds for the reactionary ideas of the alt-right. Many of those who had praised the power of tech platforms for challenging dictators barely five years earlier seemed to conclude the dictators might have been onto something, and they now demanded crackdowns and censorship.
The overturning of the tech consensus coincided with the rise to notoriety of entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel. Prior to 2016, Thiel was known as a PayPal founder, the first outside investor in Facebook, and a supporter of libertarian causes. His career had been of interest mainly to business reporters, who typically presented him as an eccentric genius given to risky bets and controversial opinions. He was depicted in The Social Network, David Fincher’s 2010 movie about Facebook, and his 2014 business manifesto, Zero to One, was well received.
During the internet euphoria of the Obama era, a few left-wing dissenters from the techno-optimist mood identified Thiel as a dangerous figure. They cited his more extreme views—his stated antipathy to democracy, his advocacy of monopolies, and his support for outlandish projects like seasteading—as evidence that Silicon Valley was not the haven of enlightened liberalism many believed it to be. Thiel, who once said he’d “rather be seen as evil than incompetent,” was unperturbed by this negative attention.
The snarky coverage of his personal life by tech industry gossip blog Valleywag was another matter. When Valleywag outed Thiel as gay (making public what had been an open secret), the site unwittingly set in motion a series of events that culminated in Thiel’s secretly funding a lawsuit filed by Terry Bollea, a.k.a. Hulk Hogan, which ultimately bankrupted and shuttered Gawker Media, Valleywag’s parent company. The revelation of Thiel’s funding of the Gawker suit was soon followed by his first statements of support for Donald Trump in 2016. His success in taking down a media organization, combined with his endorsement of a candidate who treated the “fake news media” as his nemesis, turned Thiel into a reviled figure in the press.
Most leading figures of the tech industry were technocratic liberals aligned with the Obama administration, and many in that administration took jobs in Silicon Valley after leaving D.C. In aggregate, they donated far more to the losing Clinton campaign than Thiel did to the (much poorer) Trump campaign. And yet, liberals came to see big tech as responsible for the victories of Brexit and Trump and the rise of right-wing populists abroad, such as Jair Bolsonaro. By some accounts, moguls like Mark Zuckerberg had been merely naive about their platforms’ potential to fuel demagoguery. But the left-wing argument that a covert right-wing agenda was at work beneath Silicon Valley’s progressive façade gained traction. Thiel, a heterodox conservative who had guided big tech from behind the scenes, fit the bill of supervillain in this narrative.
In his new biography, The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power, journalist Max Chafkin attempts to make sense of Thiel’s rise, the nature and extent of his influence, and his deeper motives. For Chafkin, as his title suggests, Thiel illustrates the ambitions of the Silicon Valley elite to reshape politics and society. In some ways, the biography recapitulates the “supervillain” narrative that coalesced around 2016. Chafkin questions the ethics of Thiel’s business practices, presents his beliefs as extreme, and deems his affiliations unsavory. Near the end of the book, he sums up his case: “Thiel contributed to a reactionary turn in our politics and society that has left the United States in a much more uncertain place.”
Chafkin avoids the more conspiratorial tendencies of some Thiel coverage. He tends to point out Thiel’s inconsistencies, rather than attribute to him a single, unified agenda. And he highlights the central paradox of his subject’s career: Thiel “is a critic of big tech who has done more to increase the dominance of big tech than perhaps any other person.” He “created companies that have defined our culture and economy over the past quarter century,” but he doesn’t seem satisfied with the results. He is dismissive of social media platforms like Facebook, the rise of which he did a great deal to propel, expressing disappointment that innovation has occurred in the realm of “bits” and not “atoms.” (“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters,” as one Thiel slogan has it.)
Thiel’s disillusionment with his own industry parallels that of his allies on the political right, who likewise came to regard Silicon Valley as an enemy during the Trump era—albeit for opposite reasons than their political opponents. Whereas liberals fault tech companies for being too permissive with the information they allow to circulate, conservatives condemn the escalation of censorship that culminated in President Trump’s banishment from all major online platforms. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley has given the fullest expression to the right-wing tech backlash in his book The Tyranny of Big Tech.
Thiel’s ambivalence about his professional milieu predates the recent conservative outrage about digital censorship and deplatforming. He has attacked “political correctness” since his Stanford undergraduate days. But perhaps even more concerning to Thiel than the tech industry’s absorption of liberal biases is its failure to deliver on the promise of progress. As he puts it in Zero to One, “The smartphones that distract us from our surroundings also distract us from the fact that our surroundings are strangely old: only computers and communications have improved dramatically since midcentury.” Compared to the “relentless technological progress from the advent of the steam engine in the 1760s all the way up to about 1970,” the IT revolution of recent decades has been modest in its impact. Growth has been lackluster at best since the first tech boom of the 1990s.
In practical terms, Thiel’s assessment has given rise to a two-pronged strategy. As a venture capitalist, Thiel has bet on moonshots—literally, as in his backing of his PayPal colleague Elon Musk’s SpaceX—that portend massive technical leaps, which may accelerate growth. Yet his strategy as a hedge fund manager has largely assumed continued stagnation and decline. Chafkin views this as another of his contradictions: “How exactly could a hedge fund guy who was effectively shorting the American economy also be a wide-eyed futurist?” Chafkin also tends to treat Thiel’s gloomy take on technology and the economy as mere eccentric contrarianism, a manifestation of his “unique brand of apocalyptic politics.”
But Thiel’s diagnosis of protracted economic and technological decadence is one of his less unusual views. Both liberal and conservative economists have invoked the notion of “secular stagnation” in the years since the 2008 crash. In his 2016 book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, the economist Robert J. Gordon echoes Thiel’s assessments, arguing that the internet has not had the transformative impact of earlier breakthroughs, and that the prospects for sustained growth have receded as a result. Some on the left have concurred. The late anthropologist David Graeber, an intellectual guru of the Occupy movement who participated in an amicable public debate with Thiel after the release of Zero to One, has made near-identical arguments about the waning of progress.
But for Thiel, the implications of stagnation go beyond a decline in material prospects. The “apocalyptic politics” Chafkin alludes to are, if we take Thiel’s own statements seriously, quite literal, and informed less by economic analysis than by philosophical reflection and religious conviction. Chafkin’s lack of attention to these dimensions of his subject’s thinking is a weakness of The Contrarian. Part of the problem is that Chafkin offers only superficial consideration of Thiel’s writings and interviews, extracting the statements most likely to titillate his liberal readers instead of assessing Thiel’s arguments.
Despite his stated interest in figuring out “what . . . Thiel actually believe[s],” Chafkin has little to say about Thiel’s Christian faith, or the intellectual framework he brings to it, based on the ideas of René Girard. Thiel has cited Girard’s sprawling 1978 magnum opus, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, as his favorite book. Girard draws on the Jewish and Christian Scriptures to argue that human societies are founded on mob violence against arbitrary victims. Archaic religion, for Girard, draws its power from scapegoating, ritualized as human sacrifice. Peace is brought to the community through the simultaneous vilification and deification of victims. They are blamed for the community’s conflicts, and then, through the pacifying power of this assumption of blame, become gods.
What has this theory contributed to Thiel’s Christian worldview and his business career? Chafkin does not explore this question. He briefly examines Thiel’s better-known intellectual debt to Girard, which involves interest in the primacy of imitation in human behavior. Girard argues that human desire is fundamentally mimetic: People want things not because of their intrinsic value, but because others also want or have them. This insight informs one of Thiel’s most infamous views: that, contrary to what many of his free-market libertarian friends might claim, competition is an obstacle to professional and technological growth, rather than a driver of it. It causes us to focus more on our rivals than on the substantive objectives we aim to achieve.
Girard’s insight allowed Thiel to glimpse the future of social media, which expands the field of mimetic desire by giving us a vast selection of models to imitate. Some take this as a benign or neutral development, but it has a dark edge. Imitation begets conflict by causing us to want what others have. Girard first explored this phenomenon in the romantic conflicts of novels, but it is even more evident in the attention economy. When others post about their happy, successful lives or receive more likes, favorites, and retweets than we have, the result is the toxic brew of rage, envy, and resentment we can observe online every day.
Girard’s analysis of archaic societies suggests that sacrificial rites, taboos, and purity codes evolved to keep the ever-present, socially corrosive dangers of mimetic conflict in check. But Christianity exposes the lie at the heart of sacrificial violence—the guilt of the scapegoat—and thereby undermines its social efficacy as a means of expelling conflict from the community. It is in this sense, for Girard, that Christ brings “not peace, but a sword.” The apocalyptic result is that we are left without the mechanism that has constrained the tendency to conflict generated by mimetic desire. Without scapegoating, what keeps humanity from destroying itself?
Thiel’s writings and interviews suggest that this is one of the driving questions of his career. One answer, he suggests, is technology. By enabling economic growth and bringing about a steady improvement of material prospects, technology has mitigated some sources of conflict. Advanced capitalism unleashes mimetic desire like never before, inducing us to buy products for the sake of “keeping up with the Joneses.” And yet, as long as there is a surfeit of goods, our rivalry simmers under the surface, and gestures of one-upmanship may take the non-violent form of conspicuous consumption.
Claims for the superiority of modern liberal capitalism were based on the promise of steady improvement of material well-being. People would stop fighting over religion and ideology, it was supposed, if they had access to an expanding pool of prosperity. Secular stagnation, then, is a crisis not because it portends declining standards of living, but because it has caused many to lose faith in material progress—and to turn back to archaic competition for a sense of validation.
This, for Thiel, was the prospect exposed by 9/11. As he argued at a conference he co-organized with Girard in 2004, this event had “called into question . . . the entire political framework of the modern age.” The attack on the center of the American empire by enemies who sought not an improvement of their material lot but “glory in the name of God” had laid waste to the post–Cold War certainty that shared prosperity could pacify violent conflict, a belief that had driven the globalization agenda of the 1990s. More broadly, it “rendered incomplete the economically motivated political thought that has dominated the modern West,” which assumed that “economic incentives [are] powerful enough to contain violence.” With this dogma shattered, Thiel cautioned, “mere self-preservation forces us all to look at the world anew, to think strange new thoughts.”
Is Thiel right about the dangers we face? Is the tepid economic growth of recent decades a premonition of darker, more violent times to come? Chafkin evidently has no opinion. He is unwilling, for the most part, to treat his subject’s views as anything other than arcane heresies to be policed and denounced. In this sense, he inadvertently reveals that Thiel is right about at least one thing: The ideologically formative institutions of our society—universities, journalism—have cultivated an elite barely capable of serious reflection on ideas outside of a narrow range of acceptable opinions. In Zero to One, Thiel suggests that contrarians sometimes grasp the future because their heresies reveal the truths no one acknowledges. Today’s rigid enforcement of ideological orthodoxy perpetuates sclerosis and stagnation. This is where Thiel’s two major concerns—political correctness and stalled progress—intersect.
Chafkin, like many of his fellow journalists, is concerned by the “reactionary turn in our politics and society” symbolized, most obviously, by the election of Donald Trump, whom Thiel supported. But also like many journalists, he shows no interest in the factors that have led to declining or stagnating prospects for many Americans, as well as to social atomization, anomie, and disillusionment. Doing so might require him to apportion some blame, not just to ideological bogeymen like Thiel, but to those who run his own widely disliked industry (the media)—not to mention the many Silicon Valley executives who, unlike Thiel, share Chafkin’s bien-pensant antipathy to Trumpism.
Instead, Chafkin seeks a scapegoat. This is just what members of social groupings always do in moments of crisis, according to Girard. That Chafkin finds one in Thiel would come as no surprise to the latter. He writes in Zero to One: “Like founders, scapegoats are extreme and contradictory figures.” The strength of The Contrarian is its examination of the contradictions that have attended Thiel’s improbable rise. Its main weakness is that Chafkin seems more interested in joining in his tribe’s collective vituperations than in understanding the insights that, at certain points, have allowed his complex subject to anticipate the future.
Geoff Shullenberger writes from New York.
Image by Ken Yeung via Creative Commons. Image cropped.