Thiel, Silicon Valley and the Rise of Tech Neo-Reaction

Big Tech is still often seen as 'liberal'. In fact it's the leading edge of neo-reactionary thought in the US.
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November 23, 2021 3:45 p.m.

Here are a few links to a topic I continue to think more and more about. On the surface it’s Peter Thiel, about whom more in a moment. But beyond Thiel, there’s a broader reality. In the first years of the century we learned to see Tech as a rising business and political powerhouse that was broadly liberal, at least by the standards of Big Business. ‘Liberal’ was probably never quite right – but at least broadly cosmopolitan in its social values and culture. It was young, comparatively diverse, based outside San Francisco. It was in many ways the product of the major cities and universities that are the seedbeds and home of Blue State political culture. That was never wholly true. And it’s become less true, especially as its financial titan corporations have been forced to interact more intensively with Washington DC. But it was at least partly true.

But many of the dominant figures in the world of Big Tech aren’t just conservative. A number are what might be termed neo-reactionary. Thiel of course is the first that comes to mind in this category. But he’s not the only one.

I didn’t know much about Thiel until he was revealed as the driver behind the lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker. That got me interested in him. Then I got a lot more interested when he became a key supporter of Donald Trump. Then the lawyer who managed to destroy Gawker with Thiel’s bankroll went to work for Trump and became a go-to lawyer for Trumpworld, using creative legal strategies and the demonstration case of Gawker to dramatically up the ante against news organizations. Suddenly a bunch of things that interested me greatly seemed bound together through this one person. And not good things.

This morning David Corn of Mother Jones posted this write up in his newsletter: “How Dangerous is Peter Thiel.” It’s a pretty good question and one I’ve been thinking a lot about. He goes into Thiel’s bankrolling of numerous far right political candidates and organizations. I also strongly recommend this article from last month in The New Yorker: “What is it about Peter Thiel“. Anna Wiener delves deep into who Thiel is, the ideas he espouses and more, based in part on a review of a new biography The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power by Max Chafkin of Bloomberg Businessweek.

There are many ways in which Thiel is well cast as a villain. If you were casting the evil genius who set the country on a path toward the tech-driven, robot-ruled authoritarian mid-21st century dictatorship from an old Schwarzenegger movie, you’d probably invent someone like Peter Thiel. But such talk also runs the risk of taking him more seriously than he deserves. Wiener, after edging up to maybe doing that, pivots back in the final sentence of her New Yorker article: “Then again, the truth could be much simpler: when money talks, people listen.”

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This captures my own take. Thiel is interesting to me as an artifact of early 21st century Silicon Valley. His ideas come off as half-baked and self-indulgent. They drive the kind of affirmation which seems to follow the extremely wealthy and extremely powerful. Money takes care of a lot of problems. And Thiel has billions of dollars and lots of bad ideas. This neo-reactionary thinking actually has deep influence in Silicon Valley, a good part of it tied to the writing of a guy named Curtis Yarvin who used to go by the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug.

So who else are we talking about? Well there’s there’s Eric Weinstein, the guy who coined the phrase ‘intellectual dark web’, though perhaps half ironically. He’s a managing director of Thiel Capital. Then there’s Joe Lonsdale, a fairly Trumpy Silicon Valley venture capitalist who along with Thiel founded the surveillance company Palantir Technologies. You could see Lonsdale most recently on the opinion pages of The Washington Post pitching the University of Austin – the new purported university emerging out of the ‘free speech’ Substack Cinematic Universe as a way to bring down’ America’s “rotten” “leadership culture.” This is the latest venture in the anti-PC, Bari Weiss, free speech and anti-cancel culture scene, a mix of understandable weariness with speech policing, victimization/grievance rackets, and general efforts to create safe spaces for opining on genetic basis of the intelligence of Black people.

Now let’s move to something or someone different – but not entirely unrelated. Jack Dorsey is the CEO of Twitter. A few weeks ago he went on his platform and posted an ominous warning about hyperinflation. “Hyperinflation is going to change everything. It’s happening.” He followed up a few moments later with: “It will happen in the US soon, and so the world.”

A lot of people are talking about inflation. It’s certainly possible, though highly unlikely, that we could be heading back to the kind of longterm inflation that afflicted the US from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. But “hyperinflation” isn’t going to happen. That’s very specific to Weimar Germany, episodically in Argentina and various small, usually third world countries who have cratering currencies for various reasons. It’s the kind of thing that, when it occurs in great powers, leads to civilization collapse. It’s what we used to hear from Gold Bugs and, let’s be honest, almost always right wing freaks of various sub-persuasions.

Funnily enough Dorsey’s oracular tweets were followed by numerous replies from far right accounts saying things like ‘If you finally realized the truth than you must regret censoring all the people who warned about how the Biden cabal was a trojan horse for socialism and the collapse of the United States!’ Yep. They got it. They made the connection.

And what’s the answer? Well, Dorsey has that covered. We need to be putting all our money into Bitcoin. Thiel is also heavy on bitcoin. And Elon Musk, the richest man in the world … well he’s no Peter Thiel precisely but he runs in a lot of the same Bitcoin, memefied, vaguely Trumpy territory. And last but not least remember that Thiel was the first outside investor in Facebook and a longtime member of the company’s board of directors, to whom Zuckerberg has reportedly grown closer as Facebook … sorry, Meta’s public reputation has swirled down the drain.

Dorsey is no Thiel. As best I can figure Dorsey’s neo-goldbug-ism is more a permutation of the one-track-mind libertarianism that has always been a key feature of the tech world. I bring him up here because when I saw those tweets, even though they weren’t terribly out of character for Dorsey, something clicked in my head: a lot of the guys who control what the Marxists used to call the ‘commanding heights’ of the early 21st century US economy … well, they’re kind of crazy and many have pretty wild and often very reactionary ideas.

My point for the moment is just to note that far from the assumptions of a decade or two ago – which were thin even then – Big Tech isn’t ‘liberal’, despite its still playing that part in the carnival world of the Trumpite nationalist GOP. It’s actually one of the biggest centers of neo-reactionary thought in the United States today. And most importantly: they’ve got the money. Their ideas don’t have to be right or sensible or even coherent. They’ve got the money. And money doesn’t talk it swears.

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