Peter Thiel and the Struggle Beyond Politics
I’m not as worried about Steve Bannon as I should be.
Don’t get me wrong: he’s a terror. He’s created a ruthless propaganda machine and made underachieving narcissists its engine. He’s an attack dog, shredding the facts of political discourse in favor of an inflated distortion of an America that is either “Great” or “Not Great Enough” depending on how white and male it is. That’s despicable, and dangerous.
But let’s take a minute to talk about Peter Thiel.
His name may not be as familiar to the lay as Bannon’s at this point, or certainly as Trump’s. He doesn’t run a propaganda machine, or paste his name in letters meant to crush cars. Thiel, rather, is mainly notable for his investments, having converted his modest capital in Facebook into a billion+ stake and a board seat, to say nothing of his turnaround on Palantir, which does the kinds of data analysis that would make Sauron quite envious. He offers grants to promising teenagers to convince them not to go to college. The PayPal founder and billionaire Libertarian technocrat hasn’t kept what might be considered a low profile, however: his feud with Gawker, for example, led to the end of that news outlet, ostensibly over the Hulk Hogan sex tape but undeniably inextricable from the site’s interest in Thiel’s dating life(sexuality, it seems, isn’t free, no matter how much money you make).
What concerns me is Thiel’s approach to capital and, by extension, to politics. Libertarianism is a laudable ideological approach to both, promising a kind of absolute equality of both opportunity and reward that’s instantly recognizable. Of course, it fails dramatically on the stage of reality, but we see in Thiel how it holds a very specific appeal when mixed with a pathological overabundance of money: it promises more. It promises that, with the right mix of guile and connections, a single or group of “exceptional” persons might weather the storms of, say, a WW3.
I want to explain that with Thiel’s own words, from an essay in the 2007 book “Politics and Apocalypse:”
“One may define ‘liberal’ as someone who knows nothing of the past and of this history of violence… and one may define a ‘conservative’ as someone who knows nothing of the future and of the global world that is destined to be.”
It’s subtle, but it points to a key idea from this now past election, that put both major parties on their heels: Thiel sees himself as something beyond these ideologies, implying that he himself is a kind of shepherd, sent to guide us beyond our mortal trappings. A kind of Superman, if you will, reinforced by the undeniable success he’s had in 21st century business. The major parties, assuming that individuals imagine themselves as simply one or the other and not complex individuals in a complex world, failed utterly to predict the ascendance of figures with the right cocktail of delusions to move past that, at least rhetorically.
“At the extremes, even the distinction between violence inflicted on the self and violence inflicted on other people is in the process of evaporating, in the disturbing new phenomenon of suicide-murderers. The word that best describes this unbounded, apocalyptic violence is ‘terrorism.’
“Indeed, one may wonder whether any sort of politics will remain possible for the exceptional generation that has learned the truth of human history for the first time.”
Ah, there it is. The world falls into darkness, to be caught in the graceful robot hand of the technocrat. The promise of unified humanity in globalism is gone here, outweighed entirely by the existential threat of terrorism. This Libertarian, beyond petty ideology, reveals himself now as the steward of Cheney’s America, here to fight for man, for nation, for all of humanity against the darkest parts of its very self. For men like this, racism, sexism, and bigotry seem toy concepts, useful to distract the masses but beneath the consideration of the transcendent few. Never mind the very conditions of progress and uplift that afforded Thiel the opportunity for success in the first place, this immigrant chess player, this son of a German chemical engineer, this gay libertarian intellectual.
Let’s revisit the Gawker case for a moment. In short, Gawker may have come into materials which suggested that Thiel dated men, and he found this utterly unacceptable. Placed as he is in the worlds of business and politics, if this reality were revealed on any but his own terms or, worse, became a decidedly persistent rumor, it would render him, not a stigmatized homosexual, but a human being. Ideologically, he must be beyond human. He must be the transcendental man, the genesis and synthesis of technological liberation, in a future led by the immortal individual.
With Thiel in a position of power, we risk a set of policies that treats the whole world like Gawker. If he would demolish an American news organization practicing exposure journalism that he believes, in his words, is a “terrorist” organization, what will he do on a world government stage? Once faced with the existential threats of actual terrorism, how will his nihilist perspectives rationalize his decision making? Will any opposition to his will, to his transcendental rightness, be seen as the enemy? Is this the beginning of the end of the great plurality of American government?
What’s dangerous here is the delusion of this existential conflict: it’s so ultimately simplistic that it permits all actions. The “transcendental man v. barbarian terrorists” narrative made visible by Cheney showed how far it goes in undermining all sense of human values: perpetrating torture, endless invasions, and taking, taking, taking in servicing the needs of the Western uber-man. Until now, though, that man has been effectively marginalized in politics, with even Cheney himself feeling unappreciated; truly, we might look back on his role as the Darth Vader of the Bush years as almost quaint, considering how little he liked Putin and how much he believed in NATO.
Trump and Bannon are vicious dogs, trained poorly and left to run off leash. They will certainly bite us; we must be vigilant to do everything we can to protect our most vulnerable, here in the US and around the world. But with them we’ll see the bite, at least. Thiel’s presence in government asks something far more sinister: can a man who denies his human conflicts in favor of a transcendental delusion, grounded in business success, resist the urge to crush any voice of opposition? And will we give him the power to do it? Technocratic oligarchy with the reach of globalism has terrifying implications for at least several billion humans, if not the very planet itself.
To re-ask the Question Thiel was too hesitant to pose, save rhetorically: what of this generation that knows “the truth of human history for the first time?” What will we do with this seemingly obvious knowledge: that small numbers of powerful men have, time and time again, proven that they will succumb to a sense of exceptionalism, jettisoning the insignificant masses in the process?