Last quarter I took two classes towards a Masters in Liberal Arts degree at University of Chicago. One was a study of Hindu texts taught by Professor Wendy Doniger. She is the famous and controversial professor currently prohibited from entering her beloved India as a result of legal and physical threats based on her books about the Hindu religion. You can become familiar with her work via her frequent contributions to the New York Review of Books.
The second class was taught by Andreas Glaeser, a Professor in Sociology in the College at the University of Chicago, and is called “Meaning and Motive in Social Thought”. In this class we read texts by Rousseau, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Freud, Arendt, and others. The course catalog describes it this way:
Rising inequalities, domestically and internationally, have ascribed renewed relevance to classical social scientists of the 19th and early 20th century. These thinkers offer valuable frameworks for understanding the political, economic, technological, social, and psychological transformations that shape our world and contribute to contemporary social thought. That is, how we respond to “modernity,” to the general acceleration of life—through rapid population growth, urbanization, industrialization, (nation) state formation, commodification, and globalization—affects our view of ourselves, our neighbors, and our enemies.
In both cases, my grade was based on class attendance and one paper.
For Professor Glaeser’s class my class paper topic is the most ubiquitous guru of technological progress today, someone who some consider a philosopher for the modern age. Peter Thiel is surely an American entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and hedge fund manager. But, I know philosophers. Peter Thiel is no philosopher or a new era public intellectual in the image of Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag or even Camille Paglia.
Thiel is, instead, the embodiment of a technocratic elitist and libertarian individualist with one goal: growth in wealth. He has no answers about what this wealth should be good for. He never talks about ethics. Mostly he talks to show off his sense of superiority and that of his “Pay-Pal mafia”. His assumption of superiority breeds a sense of entitlement to command and to live forever.
My paper is almost 7,000 words, with copious notes, so I will reproduce it here in three parts.
This is Part 1.
“There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity. There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity. There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love.” Bernard of Clairvaux
In April of 2013 Silicon Valley boy wonder investor and budding public intellectual Peter Thiel told students at Yale University that the United States needs technological progress to maintain a democracy. Thiel’s hedge fund, the Founders Fund, says on its website that technology is the fundamental driver of growth in the industrialized world.
It’s a very open question of whether you could have the democratic process in a world without growth. You can’t craft compromise where everyone comes out ahead.[i]
Capitalism, the engine of modern economic growth, thrives, however, in many not-so-democratic places.
China shows that when it comes to economics, the dividing line among the world’s nations is no longer between communism and capitalism. Capitalism has won hands down. The real dividing line is no longer economic. It’s political. And that divide is between democracy and authoritarianism. China is a capitalist economy with an authoritarian government.[ii]
In fact, those who openly admit they want to rid the world of capitalism, now say democracy and capitalism are incompatible. During a panel discussion at an event at the New School in New York called “The Abolition of Capitalism”, two of the panelists, David Graeber, an anthropologist and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Marina Sitrin, a lawyer, teacher, and activist explained their thoughts and intentions.
David Graeber: “It strikes me that if one is going to pursue this to its logical conclusion, the only way to have a genuinely democratic society would also be to abolish capitalism and the state.”
Marina Sitrin: “We can’t have democracy with capitalism… Democracy and capitalism don’t work together.”
This paper argues that Peter Thiel advocates for the demise of democracy, and traditional capitalism, in his writing and speeches, in his teaching at Stanford, and in media interviews. His goal is to replace democracy, and capitalism, with a more effective system, based on the wisdom of a few individuals, or maybe even only one. Thiel’s promotion of audacious technological development to increase economic growth via innovation is not, in my opinion, intended to save democracy, or traditional capitalism. Thiel’s pseudo “Christian” libertarianism is actually a utopia trending towards totalitarianism.
In a 2009 piece for the libertarian think tank The Cato Institute[iii], Thiel describes why a more effective system than democracy is necessary to create the machinery of freedom that supports his version of capitalism.
In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms—from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy.’ The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.
Peter Thiel has said enough since then to convince me that he believes he is the single person he speaks of. Thiel admits he is sick of politics and, in the essay, he explains he has even moved beyond libertarianism.
I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible. [iv]
He also says:
I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual.[v]
As a multi-billionaire, Thiel’s stand against “confiscatory” taxes is predictable. His flailing against death is understandable given everything he has to look forward to.
Thiel’s disagreement with “totalitarian collectives”, however, is a bit disingenuous. His biggest success lately is a company called Palantir whose first major investor was the CIA’s investment venture arm In-Q-Tel. The firm helps the NSA, CIA, FBI and the rest of the intelligence community analyze data acquired by mass surveillance. When asked[vi] about the non-libertarian nature of the firm and whether it was a front for the CIA, he joked:
“No, the CIA is a front for Palantir.”
Thiel’s claim to be against “totalitarian collectives” also seems be the manifestation of an elite education in liberalism at the feet of his Stanford undergraduate philosophy professor René Girard and his infatuation with the German-American classicist Leo Strauss. It was Strauss that said:
Democracy, in a word, is meant to be an aristocracy which has broadened into a universal aristocracy….Liberal education is the ladder by which we try to ascend from mass democracy to democracy as originally meant.
Put plainly, this is the view that the task of politics is to protect the right to individual liberty – nothing more or less – and the achievement of virtue, human excellence or happiness, is something only the individual on his own can strive to fulfill, either alone or in personal and voluntary association with others: never by force or coercion.
Strauss is generally known as the neo-conservative philosopher that allegedly provided the rationale for George Bush’s invasion of Iraq based on the idea that deception and manipulation of public opinion is a worthy goal for politicians and philosophers.
The truths discovered by the philosophic elite “are not fit for public consumption.” Philosophy is dangerous and must conceal its chief findings. Philosophers must cultivate a mode of esoteric communication, that is, a mode of concealing the hard truth from the masses. “Only philosophers can handle the truth.” The elite must, in a word, lie to the masses; the elite must manipulate them—arguably for their own good. [ix]
Closer to our purpose, Straus famously critiqued Max Weber in his book Natural Right and History (1950). Weber, according to Straus, believes that “there is no ‘meaning’ of history apart from the ‘subjective’ meaning or the intentions which animate historical actors. But these intentions are of such limited power that the actual outcome is, in most cases, wholly unintended.”[x] Nassar Behnegar explains Strauss’ problem with Weber:
Strauss turned away from the ‘value free’ social science of his time, which could not understand Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes as tyrannies, and turned towards classical political philosophy out of a desire for a genuine social science.[xi]
Despite his denouncement of “totalitarian collectives” Thiel is actually against everything that dilutes the “authentic” liberty, the true freedom of the ultimate me, myself and “I”, Peter Thiel.
Thiel believes competition is antithetical to capitalism because a perfectly competitive market yields no profits to owners like him. This concept is the centerpiece of his recent book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future[xii].
Americans mythologize competition and credit it with saving us from socialist bread lines. Actually, capitalism and competition are opposites. Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition, all profits get competed away. The lesson for entrepreneurs is clear: If you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business. [xiii]
Thiel gained, and then lost, a multi-billion dollar fortune as a result of the financial crisis that began in 2007. His hedge fund, Clarium Capital Management was funded with the proceeds of his sale of the firm he founded, PayPal to eBay in 2002. By the summer of 2008, Clarium had assets of more than seven billion dollars, a seven-hundred-fold increase in six years according to a profile of Thiel by George Packer in The New Yorker magazine in 2011. His contrarian investment philosophy sent him in the wrong direction as the market went way down at the end of 2008 and in the wrong direction again as it was on the way up in 2009.
PayPal was an early dream, now realized by the crypto-currency movement that includes Bitcoin, to create an online currency that could circumvent government control. Thiel told The New Yorker’s George Packer[xiv] that his libertarian goal of creating an anonymous currency system outside of the control of the central banks failed because of heightened concerns, after 9/11, that terrorists might exploit such a systems.
His response to that failure has been to distance himself even more from mainstream, real-time practical financial strategies and to focus, with his Founder’s Fund, on what some may consider to be separatist, utopian ones. From the fund’s website:
Our answer is that substantially all of the capital in our portfolio should be directed to companies with audacious vision seeking enormous markets.
In March of 2014, Peter Thiel presented, with the University of Chicago’s Stephen C. Meredith and another academic, on “God, Science, and Technology”. [xv] Thiel’s response to Meredith’s paper begins with two apocalyptic quotes from the New Testament’s Book of Revelations. Thiel believes in the coming of the “City of God” but says there is no return to Eden.
[The] necessary precondition for the planetary civilization of 10 billion people that will be Earth in the 22nd century is a highly advanced level of science and technology… We should acknowledge that there are many perils with the scientific and technological trajectory on which we find ourselves. But we should never forget that the alternatives to technological acceleration are far from ethically or politically neutral.
Technology means doing more with less. In the absence of technological progress, we end up with a zero-sum world, in which there must be a loser for every winner.[xvi]
To Thiel, the distrust of a scientific and technological utopia is “the hallmark of the post-Enlightenment, postmodern West.” Post-modernity has displaced modernity as a result of this distrust. In an unpublished paper presented at the conference, Thiel betrays his Christian views, such as they are[xvii], ones that he rarely talks about otherwise.
Judeo-Western optimism differs from the atheist optimism of the Enlightenment in the extreme degree to which it believes the forces of chaos and nature can and will be mastered. The tyranny of Chance will give way to the providence of God… Science and technology are natural allies to this Judeo-Western optimism, especially if we remain open to an eschatological frame in which God works through us in building the kingdom of heaven today, here on Earth – in which the kingdom of heaven is both a future reality and something partially achievable in the present. [xviii]
Thiel’s interest in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics and space exploration is realized in investment in what he calls “transformational technologies”. He was the largest founding contributor to the Singularity Institute, now known the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI). MIRI is a think tank co-founded in 2000 by a Thiel PayPal friend Eliezer Yudkowsky. Its tag line:
We do foundational mathematical research to ensure smarter-than-human artificial intelligence has a positive impact.
Thiel gave three and one-half million dollars to the Methuselah Foundation, a non-profit that tackles aging research. The purpose?
To revise assumptions regarding what is and isn’t possible for human life, health, and happiness. We believe that aging as we currently know it is not inevitable.[xix]
Thiel has been called “Our Very Own Francis Bacon” and Bacon’s words figure prominently in Thiel’s recent book.[xx] Bacon, an Elizabethan-era intellectual founder of modernity with Descartes and Locke promoted what’s been referred to as the merger of “science and technology into one techno-scientific project”[xxi]. Bacon wrote in History of Life and Death:
Whatever can be repaired gradually without destroying the original whole is, like the vestal fire, potentially eternal. [xxii]
German philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote about these issues in the 1950’s. In Arendt’s Prologue to The Human Condition she wrote about the “hope to extend man’s life-span far beyond the hundred-year limit.”
This future man whom scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself. There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth.[xxiii]
Thiel was an early patron of the Seasteading Institute, a libertarian nonprofit organization. He gave $1.25 million to Patri Friedman, its founder and a former Google engineer. Friedman is the grandson of the original libertarian Milton Friedman.
…working to enable seasteading communities—floating cities—which will allow the next generation of pioneers to test new ideas for government. The most successful can then inspire change in governments around the world. [xxiv]
But there’s a big difference between science and technology. In Zero to One Thiel says nothing about basic science even though technology and science are interdependent. Thiel seems to think that focusing on technology is enough to come up with the transformational discoveries that will restore economic growth and restore us to the level of bigger than life accomplishments such as the space program.
Technology investing, even as part of a larger philosophical vision, is not the same as planning society’s future. It is about giving advice and funding to young people who tend to be brilliant, cash-starved, and immature. It is about making wise and calculated bets that will earn a large financial return. [xxv]
Stephen Meredith proposes that science and religion is about knowing, i.e., forming worldviews, while technology and magic is about doing, i.e., how we make nature comply with our wills.
Science follows, learns from technology; there is less traffic in the opposite direction… the practical and the mundane, the stuff of technology, have always been and remain an inexhaustible source for science.[xxvi]
Later this week, Part II.
[i] Rodrigues, Adrian. “Billionaire investor predicts bleak future for innovation”. The Yale Daily News. April 16, 2013. March 13, 2015. e
[ii] Reich, Robert. “The China Path”. The American Prospect. January 9, 2006. March 10, 2015.
[iii] Thiel, Peter A. “The Education of a Libertarian”. Cato Unbound. The Cato Institute, Washington DC. April 13, 2009. March 12, 2015.
[iv] Ibid. “The Education of A Libertarian”.
[v] Ibid. “The Education of A Libertarian”.
[vii] Kant, Immanuel. The philosophy of law: an exposition of the fundamental principles of jurisprudence as the science of right. University Microfilms, 1887.
[viii] Machan, Tibor R., “Leo Strauss: Neoconservative?” Philosophy Now. Feb/March 2015.
[ix] Zuckert, Catherine, and Michael Zuckert. “The Truth about Leo Strauss.” Political Philosophy and American Democracy, Chicago (2006).
[x] Strauss, Leo. Natural Right and History. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1950. p. 38
[xi] Behnegar, Nasser. Leo Strauss, Max Weber, and the scientific study of politics. University of Chicago Press, 2003. p. 1.
[xii] Thiel, Peter, and Blake Masters. Zero to One: Notes on Startups, Or how to Build the Future. Crown Business, 2014.
[xiii] Thiel, Peter A. “Competition Is For Losers”. The Wall Street Journal. September 12, 2014. March 10, 2015
[xiv] “Thiel inherited the Christianity of his parents—he grew up as an Evangelical—but he describes his beliefs as “somewhat heterodox,” complicated by his cultural liberalism. “I believe Christianity is true,” he said. “I don’t sort of feel a compelling need to convince other people of that.”” Packer, George. The New Yorker Magazine. Conde Nast, 28 Nov. 2011. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.
[xv] “God, Science “ and Technology” A seminar sponsored by First Things and Religion and the Public Life was held March 9-10, 2014.
[xvi] Thiel, Peter, “Against Edenism” presented at the seminar “God, Science “ and Technology” March, 2014.
[xvii] “Thiel inherited the Christianity of his parents—he grew up as an Evangelical—but he describes his beliefs as “somewhat heterodox,” complicated by his cultural liberalism. “I believe Christianity is true,” he said. “I don’t sort of feel a compelling need to convince other people of that.”” Packer, George. The New Yorker Magazine. Conde Nast, 28 Nov. 2011. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.
[xviii] Thiel. “Against Edenism”.
[xx] Thiel’s co-author, Blake masters runs a website where he publishes the notes to Thiel’s Stanford University start-up class that was the basis for Zero to One. The site’s tagline: “Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.”
[xxi] Sacasas, Michael. TheFrailistThing.com. “Our Very Own Francis Bacon”. October 4, 2014. March 13, 2015.
[xxii] Bacon, Francis, and Basil Montagu. The Works of Francis Bacon. Vol. 1. Parry & McMillan, 1857.
[xxiii] Arendt, Hannah. The human condition. University of Chicago Press, 2013.
[xxv] Gertner, John. MIT Technology Review. “The Contrarian’s Guide To Changing The World”. October 8, 2014. March 12, 2015.
[xxvi] Meredith, Stephen C., “The Modern Scientist as a Palimpsest of Three Fausts, unpublished paper presented at the seminar “God, Science “ and Technology” March, 2014.