The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power by Max Chafkin. Penguin, 400 pages.
Peter Thiel learned about death when he was three years old. Sitting on a cowhide rug, young Peter asked his father where the rug had come from. A dead cow, his father replied. Peter was bursting with questions, but his father Klaus, a stern, pious German, had little patience for childish fancy. All animals die, he intoned. All people, too. And one day you will die as well.
Ever since Socrates drained his cup of hemlock, wise men and women have said that philosophy is about learning how to die. But this above all is what Peter Thiel, the so-called philosopher-king of Silicon Valley, has refused to learn. Widely known for his funding of research to “cure” death, Thiel has continued to resist the lesson his father tried to impart about the inevitability and naturalness of mortality. From the scene on the cowhide rug, little Peter absorbed a different insight entirely: the ease with which living, breathing creatures can be turned into commodities to be stepped on.
The Contrarian, a study of Thiel’s rise to power by tech reporter Max Chafkin, takes as its central question: What, precisely, does Thiel believe? Many successful capitalists are hesitant and uneasy about ideas, if not indifferent to intellectual life altogether. To seize opportunities in a dynamic economic environment, one needs loose commitments, shifting loyalties. Today’s super-rich pay fealty to vague notions of entrepreneurship, innovation, “the future,” and other doctrines that justify their elevated status, but most dismiss philosophy as an inefficient distraction.
What emerges from Chafkin’s biography is a picture of a man who, unlike many of his wealthy peers, is intensely ideological and relentlessly abstract. Though Thiel is surrounded by opulence in accordance with the dictates of his class, one gets the sense that he finds it difficult to enjoy his sleek cars and marvelous mansions; ideas are more real to him than worldly goods. Unlike most philosophically inclined people, however, he has the money and power to realize his ideological commitments. His influence on Silicon Valley, on a new generation of ascendant capitalists, and on American political life has been profound.
Thiel styles himself as an intellectual, and observers of the tech and business worlds have echoed that designation. But as Chafkin shows, he has won through cunning, betrayal, financial pressure, and intimidation what he never could have won by persuasion. His career tells a story of the philosophical life gone awry.
Like many who go on to achieve material success, Thiel began life as a lonely and serious child. His family moved frequently, and this itinerancy deepened his habits of solitude. He spent his early years in apartheid South Africa, where his father was building a uranium mine for the country’s secret nuclear weapons program. At the mine, white managers, like the elder Thiel, enjoyed membership in the company’s country club. Black laborers, on the other hand, were reportedly never told they were mining uranium (an advocacy group mentioned workers “dying like flies” from radiation), and workers who failed to carry their identification papers into the mine were frequently jailed for the day.
The family later settled in a suburb near San Francisco, where Thiel began middle school. Slender, haughty, and subtly effeminate, he was bullied and mocked. He sought refuge in competitive chess, high test scores, and rereading The Lord of the Rings. Aloof and unpopular, Thiel struggled and schemed, convinced of his superiority. His study of Tolkien would prove fateful. The author’s images of Mordor—a technological civilization bent on absolute power—enchanted him. Spurred on by fantasy novels, he slowly became aware of the role he would assume in the world. He would play the villain.
The path to right-wing intellectual glory is not unduly strenuous: if you recount campus absurdities while hitting the desired notes of fear, indignation, and mockery, people will pay you for it.
As an undergraduate at Stanford in the Reagan years, Thiel embarked on a well-trodden path to power: He fashioned himself into an aggrieved campus conservative. Disdainful as ever—each morning in the dorms he would stalk past his hungover peers and make a show of taking his vitamins, one by one, by the water fountain—Thiel found at Stanford new reasons for smugness. He had grown into his angular good looks, taken up weightlifting, and was earning the best grades in his class. Pulled over for speeding on the way to a chess tournament, the philosophy major talked his way out of a ticket by protesting that the concept of a speed limit didn’t make sense. Yet it was the politically correct campus liberals, he insisted, who were self-satisfied, dangerous, and extreme.
Thiel aired his grievances in the Stanford Review, a monthly conservative tabloid-style paper inspired by Dinesh D’Souza’s notorious Dartmouth Review. This newspaper was Thiel’s first entrepreneurial venture. Tensely restrained in person, into his columns Thiel poured his anger, humor, paranoia, and erotic frustration. (Fearmongering over gay sex acts was a mainstay of the Review.) He found campus contrarianism so enjoyable that he stayed at Stanford for law school and continued to write for what was, strictly speaking, an undergraduate publication.
Thiel’s first attempt to launch himself into the world proved abortive. In New York, the lonely libertarian burned out of corporate law in seven months. His next job, in finance, was similarly uninspiring. He longed to return to his old game of grandstanding against political correctness. So, he moved back to the Bay Area and, with his coauthor and future PayPal colleague David Sacks, published The Diversity Myth, an attack on campus multiculturalism. (Among other complaints, the book charged that Stanford had failed to seal up all the glory holes in the campus bathrooms.) The John M. Olin Foundation, a conservative fund dedicated to seeding a “counter-intelligentsia,” donated $40,000 to promote the book. The path to right-wing intellectual glory is not unduly strenuous: if you recount campus absurdities while hitting the desired notes of fear, indignation, and mockery, people will pay you for it. Thiel had arrived. He would soon find larger terrain on which to wage ideological warfare.
In the decades that followed—as Thiel pivoted to tech and struck gold with what became PayPal; as he won lucrative government contracts for the data-mining and surveillance firm Palantir; as he invested early and wisely in several tech juggernauts, including Facebook; as he established himself as a conservative kingmaker, donating millions to Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Kris Kobach, and other reactionary politicians; as he amassed billions, tax-free, in his Roth IRA—he continued to play the philosopher all the while. When asked by a reporter in the early days of PayPal whether the company was operating illegally as an unlicensed bank, he replied gnomically: “No one knows what defines a bank.” He presented himself as Socrates and lived like King Midas.
In his new life as an entrepreneur, Thiel occasionally indulged in hijinks redolent of The Wolf of Wall Street—donning a fat suit and sumo-wrestling PayPal’s senior staff at a corporate retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains—but everyone could tell he’d rather be reading or playing chess. He ran his hedge fund, Clarium, as if it were a think tank. Whenever possible, he surrounded himself with beautiful young male interlocutors. Thiel’s chorus of ephebes, at least, would have pleased Socrates. (Lest I be accused of any scandalous implication: although Chafkin notes many times that Thiel is habitually flanked by an entourage of hunks—“like male models,” gawked onetime Thiel ally Steve Bannon—the book dishes little in the way of gay gossip; apparently, even sightings of Thiel holding his husband’s hand are few and far between.)
As a manager, Thiel was reportedly evasive and conflict-averse. His real interest was in grand strategy and big-picture ideological questions. PayPal, he hoped, would lead to “the erosion of the nation-state” by making it impossible for governments to control money supply—an argument anticipating the position of many of today’s cryptocurrency advocates. He scoffed at the New Age claptrap of Steve Jobs and his ilk. In place of soothing bromides about how technology could expand human potential, he ushered in a new, more Machiavellian governing ethos for Silicon Valley’s technocapitalists. According to Thiel, firms should seek monopoly power by any means necessary, and technological development should be pursued regardless of human cost. Thanks to smart bets and a willingness to exploit legal gray areas, he transformed his signature contrarianism into economic and political power. Yet he never truly left the campus skirmishes behind.
By the early 2000s, Chafkin reports, Thiel had already crafted a persona as “an intellectual who just so happened to also be a dot-com millionaire.” Journalists and pundits eagerly endorsed his public guise, acclaiming Thiel as the Heidegger of hedge funds, the Foucault of fin-tech. Fortune magazine called him “perhaps America’s leading public intellectual”; the economist Tyler Cowen declared him “one of the greatest and most important public intellectuals of our time.”
Overstated as this fanfare may be, Thiel displays an interest in intellectual culture unusual for a billionaire businessman. He occasionally funds academic conferences and publishes philosophical musings of an intricacy one would expect more from a disaffected graduate student than a tech investor. He even debated the late anthropologist David Graeber in an event hosted by this very magazine. (Most plutocrats prefer more glamorous vanity projects, such as buildings named after them or statues of themselves.) He also intervenes in the world of letters in more insidious ways. Bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker is only the tip of the iceberg: one source told Chafkin that Thiel had secretly funded Quillette (Claire Lehmann, the publication’s founder, has said that Thiel’s start-up manual Zero to One, coauthored with Blake Masters, inspired her to create the magazine); he also funds a journal that questions the scientific consensus on evolution and climate change.
Accustomed to being the smartest guy in the room, Thiel “seems locked,” writes the critic Adrian Daub, “in some weird I-don’t-know-whether-to-kiss-you-or-kill-you codependency with higher education.” Having begun his career as an anti-political-correctness activist, he now rejects academia and, through his Thiel Fellowship, pays young people to drop out of college. Nonetheless, he seems to yearn for validation from the academics he showers with contempt. Thiel believes that the smartest should lead, and that he, not the befuddled clerics of the academy, deserves that mantle. His influence is undeniable. While particular ventures he has supported are fringe—he gave Milton Friedman’s grandson money to develop floating libertarian paradises on the high seas—close observers of Silicon Valley say his views are “surprisingly mainstream” among the tech world’s moneyed classes. And because Thiel has emerged as one of the most generous conservative megadonors in American politics—recently pledging $10 million apiece to Senate hopefuls J. D. Vance, of Ohio, and his former cowriter Blake Masters, of Arizona—his views might soon become popular among Republicans on Capitol Hill as well.
The most widely disseminated distillation of Thiel’s ideas is probably Zero to One, which laments technological stagnation and advises firms to escape competition and create monopolies for themselves. At the time of its release in 2014, some reviewers praised the book for its erudition: Thiel and Masters sprinkle in allusions to the likes of Marx, Hegel, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick. But the book’s highbrow tidbits are simplified and predigested: he is hardly the first popular writer to quote the first sentence of Anna Karenina in service of some pithy maxim. Self-help writers from Dale Carnegie through Jordan Peterson have sampled generously from literature and philosophy to claim legitimacy for their projects; Thiel is no exception.
More revealing of Thiel’s intellectual tendencies is an essay few have read: “The Straussian Moment,” which emerged out of a six-day conference on René Girard held at Stanford in July 2004, funded by Thiel. The essay argues that 9/11 proves the political philosophy of Enlightenment liberalism defunct: human beings are much more violent and dangerous than Locke and others dared to believe. Steeped in anti-modern, anti-liberal thinkers like Girard, Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, and Nietzsche, the essay rejects democracy and the Enlightenment and broods on the apocalypse. Thiel dismisses the social contract along Girardian lines as “the fundamental lie of the Enlightenment.” Coming from a cantankerous literary theorist, such a remark might seem merely provocative. When voiced by a billionaire actively working to destabilize society, it sounds a more sinister note.
The sense of life expressed here is pessimistic and anti-egalitarian. The modern age, Thiel believes, is always on the precipice of tipping into cascades of violence. Such widespread social collapse would, presumably, prove that ideas about social obligation and humanity’s potential for goodness were fictions all along. Elsewhere, Thiel has lamented the “unthinking demos” that prefers social democracy over unbridled capitalism and has suggested an escape from politics altogether—whether to cyberspace, or outer space, or the sea. For Thiel, humanity is a violent, easily manipulable mob.
Thiel is interested in truth—consisting, for him, of esoteric and disturbing visions of primitive humanity drenched in blood—but he is not interested in justice.
Apocalypticism has become fashionable on both the right and left. Given escalating climate emergencies, an ongoing pandemic, and brutal disparities in life chances, such feelings of doom and resignation are understandable, if not particularly helpful. But Thiel’s right-wing apocalypticism is especially pernicious. His dismissal of the social contract excuses himself and his fellow oligarchs from obligations toward others. In the event of emergency, it’s every man for himself. Yet the super-rich tech magnates who are building bunkers and (in Thiel’s case) escape houses in New Zealand are some of the very same people responsible, to a nontrivial degree, for undermining social stability by spreading propaganda, fanning political hatred, and evading taxes. Palantir specifically has contributed to social unrest by creating software to help ICE find and deport immigrants, and building predictive-policing tools that are widely seen as discriminatory and in violation of civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. Equally galling is the fact that Thiel, an investor who takes pride in his ability to make predictions, will take any large-scale social collapse as proof of his prescience. Chafkin tells us that Thiel sees Covid-19 as a vindication of his beliefs about looming calamity.
Against Thiel’s rejection of the social contract—which allows the rich and powerful to destroy society, then exit, leaving the rest of us to pay the costs—we might offer notions of mutual aid and equality of survival. It’s unlikely he would listen. Thiel is interested in truth—consisting, for him, of esoteric and disturbing visions of primitive humanity drenched in blood—but he is not interested in justice.
Chafkin has assembled a richly detailed portrait of an evasive subject. Thiel’s backroom deals and political maneuvering are clarified and documented. But the man himself remains a cypher. “Do not be true to yourself,” Thiel told graduates of Hamilton College in a May 2016 commencement speech. He offers us the spectacle of a brilliant mind housed in a deformed personality, a man who has turned his armchair philosophizing into a vision imposed on the world.
More than we know, we are living in Peter Thiel’s world. It will take more than philosophy to get us out of it.