Book review | Peter Thiel, technology and power: New framework

Studies of tech moguls have become a staple in the biography over the past decade. Best-sellers such as Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the quest for a fantastic future by Ashlee Vance have walked a fine line between candid exploration and hagiographic reverence.

While presenting their subjects as ruthless businessmen who abuse their employees and people in their personal lives, they also praise their innovations as paving the way for a better future. Their personal cruelty and narcissism is often described as the price the world has to pay for genius.

These portrayals are consistent with Silicon Valley’s self-image, as big tech companies claim their operations offer solutions to all of the world’s political and social problems. Government regulation, labor unions and taxation, on the other hand, are forces that hinder progress.

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But as Bloomberg reporter Max Chafkin shows in his new biography of right-wing entrepreneur Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley progressivism is a carefully constructed myth. Since the Silicon Valley region of northern California, United States, was associated with advanced information technology during the Cold War, the region’s success has hinged on its extensive trade and political relationships. with the military and big American companies.

As Chafkin writes, its dominant culture has always been Ayn Rand libertarianism, which views the rich as heroic figures who deserve unhindered power and retains a deep hostility to the ideals of democracy and egalitarianism.

Not a vampire

These trends are exemplified in the career of venture capitalist Thiel, who made his fortune early investing in companies such as PayPal (along with Musk) and later Facebook, which has now been renamed Meta.

Thiel has a public reputation for eccentricity. Widely circulated reports led him to buy land in New Zealand to survive a future apocalypse and promote a business involved in finding ways to extend life. The latter included harvesting the blood of young people, which led to the surreal headline “Trump Billionaire Supporter Peter Thiel Denies Being a Vampire” in the Independent newspaper in 2018.

But behind these stories lies a powerful, cynical and wealthy broker who used his fortune not only to support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016, but also retains ties to even more politically extreme figures in the alt-right movement.

Chafkin shows that Thiel – who was born in Germany, spent time in South African-occupied Namibia as a child and then publicly defended apartheid while a student at Stanford University in California – is motivated by a dangerous mix of creeping self-interest and genuine ideology. conviction.

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His support for Trump hinged in part on ensuring a regulatory environment that would allow minimal taxation for himself and other billionaires. But he also saw Trump and his supporters as an opening to create an alliance between right-wing libertarianism and xenophobic and nationalist political movements.

Thiel, Chafkin clarifies, is motivated by a reactionary vision for the future that combines the free movement of capital and the rich with intransigent anti-immigration policies. Although he said that political democracy is a mistake and that politics should be dictated by the rich, he saw the mass base of Trump supporters as an opportunity to achieve more power.

Its anti-regulatory position does not translate into a rejection of authoritarian power. In contrast, much of his fortune is tied to his company Palantir, which monitors data on behalf of the US State Security, including becoming involved in the immigration agency’s migrant policing regime. and customs of the country.

Internet repackaging

Thiel was a formidable chess player from an early age. He attended Stanford University to study law, but spent much of his time running Stanford Review, specializing in tirades of anger against liberals and leftists on campus. From the late 1980s, Thiel joined the Republican Party’s “culture wars”.

He turned his chess skills to anticipate the future by working as a venture capitalist, providing seed funding for tech companies. Rather than being a genius for radical new ideas, Thiel’s strength lies in his ability to repackage existing business models for the internet age.

Chafkin writes that instead of being at the forefront of major scientific advancements, the tech industry relies on privatization and monopolization. Uber, for example, has found a way to shut down the taxi business, while Amazon has engulfed mainstream retail.

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Thiel combined this approach with his ideologies. He supported PayPal because he saw it as a way to bypass government regulation of banking transactions. And in the early 2000s, he got involved with Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook’s internal motto was “move fast, break things,” which meant “disrupting” existing means of receiving news. Thiel saw it as a perfect space for unrestrained right-wing propaganda and for frightening.

Facebook has been widely criticized during the Covid-19 pandemic for providing a platform for extreme conspiracy and damaging medical disinformation. Chafkin argues that this was not only due to a lack of oversight, but also the result of the financial and political model he has followed since its inception.

‘Nazi-curious’

While building his wealth throughout the 2000s, Thiel relied on marginal ideologies. Among those to whom he has granted his sponsorship was “neo-reactionary” thinker Curtis Yarvin, who called for CEO-led dictatorships to replace electoral democracy and once said that “although I’m not a white nationalist, I ”I’m not exactly allergic to this stuff.

In the 2010s, as the openly racist and fascist alt-right began to flourish online, Thiel became, in the words of one of his friends, “Nazi-curious.” He embarked on this movement while making sure to distance himself from some of its more notorious members, refusing to meet white nationalist Richard Spencer after being filmed using the Nazi victory salute Sieg Heil.

In contrast, he viewed Trump as a much more credible political ally. When Trump began his run for president of the United States in 2015, his inflammatory statements about race and immigration prompted many Silicon Valley companies – which fund both Democratic and Republican candidates to buy money. ‘influence – to avoid their fundraising efforts for fear of negative reactions from their staff and the general public.

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Thiel had no such reservations. He has dedicated money and time to supporting Trump, even speaking at the 2016 Republican National Convention where Trump was chosen as the presidential candidate.

Once Trump came to power, Thiel hoped to capitalize on his support. His plan was to place extremist libertarians in high positions in the US federal government and replace public institutions with a technocracy.

In practice, Washington’s internal politics thwarted his megalomaniacal plans and he was unable to make hard-hitting appointments while Trump was in power. But Thiel seems to have lost none of his political ambition. In a 2020 interview, he claimed that Covid-19 means “the future has been unleashed”. For Thiel, writes Chafkin, the pandemic is “a chance to reset society to its plans and ideals.”

These ideals do little more than make capitalism even more brutal, nihilistic and destructive than it is today.

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