Thiel’s Spiel

Max Chafkin’s thrilling new biography of tech-investor Peter Thiel presents a man on a mission to merge libertarian populism with the US national security state. He might just be the closest thing to Cecil Rhodes we got.

Peter Thiel (centre) and Apple Inc CEO Tim Cook during a meeting with Trump and other tech leaders in New York, December 14, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/Alamy Stock photos

When he graduated from high school in 1985, Peter Thiel, trying to be nice, wrote in a female friend’s yearbook, ‘Have a good summer and a good life. I could never (even hypothetically) have aborted you’. That sets the tone for what follows in Max Chafkin’s new biography of the libertarian tech-investor. Upon his arrival at Stanford where he studied philosophy and law, Thiel expected ‘great books and scholarly quietude’. He was instead disappointed to encounter ‘bikini-clad women’ who were mainly interested in sex, inspiring a lifelong fixation on civilisational decline. 

35 years later, Thiel received Representative Matt Gaetz while wearing only a T-shirt and boxers – an expression, in Thiel’s unique fashion, of political power. Chafkin, an obviously brave journalist, tells with verve the story of what happened in between. Thiel was born in 1967 in Spiessbürger Frankfurt, before his engineer father moved the family to Ohio, and thence to a uranium mine operated by the South African apartheid regime in Namibia. When little Peter enquired after the origin of a leather rug, his doting Vati explained, ‘Death happens to all animals. All people. It will happen to me one day. It will happen to you one day’. Thiel, who has spent millions researching cryonics and parabiosis, seems to have never gotten over this.

Chafkin’s book leaves the reader with the distinct impression that Thiel was somewhat endearing at university before becoming insufferably smug in the real world. He was bullied savagely at school – Chafkin joining in with many of the jeers – and at Stanford, he found an explanation for his unhappiness in the ‘scapegoat theory’ sketched by his lecturer and mentor René Girard.  At Stanford, Thiel also founded a wild-sounding student tabloid, the Stanford Review, which had a column called ‘Confessions of a Sexual Deviant’ and advised liberal readers to pursue careers ‘educating people about how to use condoms’. When one Review columnist chaffed another for shouting ‘Damn f*ggot!’ outside a fellow’s house, a third contributor accused the first of promoting ‘anonymous bathroom sex, ingestion of bodily excrement, sadomasochism, pederasty, and cruelty to gerbils’.

Thiel successfully managed to extricate himself from all this unpleasantness by moving to New York in 1994, where he tried his hands at both corporate law and derivatives trading before trudging back to California. In the Golden State, he made some money on the right-wing outrage circuit by publishing a book attacking The Diversity Myth before starting a small, unassuming hedge fund with money from friends and family. As he would do throughout his later career, at the time Tiel was apparently planning to position himself both as a public intellectual, publishing in the Wall Street Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle, and as a macro-investor betting on global political and economic trends. Yet, his fund’s performance, as Chafkin notes, remained underwhelming and Thiel soon pivoted his interest to the emerging dot-com boom, looking for a ‘golden geek’ he could invest in. He got lucky. 

One day, while lecturing on currency trading at Stanford, he met Max Levchin, a Ukrainian computer scientist with innovative ideas about money-transfer cryptography. Thiel reportedly invested 250,000 $ and their partnership became the digital payment firm PayPal. From the start, PayPal’s business model of facilitating global money transfers without regulatory oversight jived well with Thiel’s libertarian beliefs. While not a technologist or ‘golden geek’ himself, at PayPal, as in his later ventures, Thiel became something of a chief ideologue or corporate political commissar, preaching about ‘the erosion of the nation-state’ and bringing about a libertarian revolution in international finance. The firm which was staffed with plenty of former Stanford Review editors, fostered an anti-diverse, extremley white and extremely male culture that included an obsession with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and an obscure techno-libertarian novel called Cryptonomicon which deals with a group of cryptographers who build a government-secure online banking system. Yet, while PayPal was initially and seemingly by design exceedingly lax in its interpretation of anti-money laundering regulations, it quickly started to suffer losses by allowing criminals an unusual degree of financial anonymity in the conduct of their illegal activities. As a consequence, and in complete contradiction to its ultra-libertarian ethos, the firm developed a software called ‘Igor’ (named after a particularly notorious PayPal fraudster who was allegedly based in Russia) which allowed the tracing of illicit financial streams and which – unsurprisingly – soon gained enthusiastic admirers in the FBI. 

After 9/11 and PayPal’s sale to eBay in 2002, ‘Igor’ formed the foundation for Thiel’s next project, the hugely profitable corporate surveillance firm Palantir which thrived as the Global War on Terror accelerated throughout the 2000s and was bankrolled by the CIA’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel. If we follow Chafkin, it appears that in these years Thiel through Palantir effectively became an adjunct fellow of the US’s military-industrial complex by facilitating the surveillance of global data streams and providing battlefield intelligence to American army units deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Especially under the Obama administration, the firm consequently successfully built a corporate mythology revolving around an allegedly crucial role in the capture of Osama Bin Laden which while unverified boosted the value of the company into billion dollar territory.

The blatant contradiction between Thiel’s professed libertarian beliefs and his allegedly close collaboration with the US government is a central, narrative conflict running through Chafkin’s book that is never quite resolved and remains one of the most baffling mysteries in this particular billionaire’s life. Although Thiel has variously styled himself as an anti-political intellectual, he also comes across as a man on an ideological mission who appears to have always wanted to wield governmental power without actually being in the government. In this, he might be the closest thing to Cecil Rhodes our age has yet produced and is in fact one of the most important figures in the recent history of capitalism. 

While Thiel’s contrarian instincts have famously led him to predict the crash of the American housing market in 2007, he comes out of Chafkin’s chapters not so much as a visionary, but as a cyborg version of an LA hustler in a Raymond Chandler novel or an interesting storyline in an early Tarantino movie. In 2004, he launched a fine-dining nightclub called Frisson, with an ‘enormous light-up mural’ and bathrooms that appeared, as one reviewer noted, designed ‘expressly for couples looking for a quickie’. Its architect was paid with a Ducati motorbike and before it went bust, its clients included one Kevin Spacey. Another one of Thiel’s ventures was American Thunder, a ‘politically incorrect NASCAR magazine’ that included essays about ‘women’s work’ and cleavage shots of unsuspecting ‘trackside distractions’. These, let’s face it, creepy eccentricities appear first and foremost as curious artefacts of a uniquely weird pre-recession culture that venerated ridiculous investments, awful interior designs, overlong movies with problematic actors and ‘bad food restaurants’ run by Graydon Carter. However, they are also indicative of an almost Trumpian wish to be loved both by the liberal, coastal elites with terrible tastes and a clichéd right-wing vision of white, working-class America. And indeed, culturally, as well as politically, Thie has always fitted much better into MAGAverse than the hyper-liberal, Democrat-dominated Silicon Valley. We shall talk more about this in a moment. 

If we follow Chafkin’s account, it appears that Thiel has never seen himself as just another ‘manager’ or businessman, but rather a ‘visionary’, philosopher-king and the leader of a gang of like-minded libertarian nerds inhabiting the ‘Thielverse’ with him. Not for nothing, his various entourages have called themselves the ‘PayPal Mafia’ and ‘Team Rogue’, while the capo celebrated hustles by thrashing his minions at speed chess. At some point, it became customary to hail Thiel as a ‘thought leader’. In fact, like a modern Renaissance Prince, he has, over the years, assembled a menagerie of right-wing pet intellectuals like the neo-reactionary Alt-Right godfather Curtis Yarvin and the Hillbilly Elegy author and Trump-Versteher JD Vance. He also claims familiarity with the oeuvres of Carl Schmitt (the ‘crown jurist of the Third Reich’), Leo Strauss and our very own William Rees-Mogg, father of the Jeeves and Wooster character currently serving as Leader of the House and one of the godfathers of British libertarianism. According to Chafkin, it seems we also have to thank Thiel for Ted Cruz whose political rise he helped finance, as well as Missouri senator Josh Hawley, and the new brand of ‘national conservativism’ the latter is currently promoting. Both these politicians have seemed like busted flushes since the events of January 2021; in Silicon Valley, fully-leaded ‘Thielism’ – the corporate merger of libertarianism, Trumpian populism and the veneration of the national security state – is yet to displace Facebook and Google’s in-house politics: that is, ‘kayfabe’ shadow-boxing with the GOP in public masking cordial relations with both oligarchic parties in private. 

There is, it must be admitted, a big orange elephant in the room. Thiel purchased a speaking slot at the 2016 Republican National Convention, having previously judged Donald Trump ‘symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with New York City’. After vanquishing Hillary Clinton, Trump granted Thiel a fourteenth-floor office in Trump Tower, where he installed six ‘disconcertingly attractive’ hunks as part of the presidential transition team. However, when Thiel proposed a variety of candidates for federal appointments, Trump found almost all them excessively right-wing. As Steve Bannon, an associate of Thiel, observed in a baffling statement, Trump ‘turned out not to be a revolutionary.’ This certainly puts things into perspective.

That was as far as it went. Trump preferred to deal man-to-man with Bezos and Zuckerberg, who privately begged him to hose down the Great Firewall of China. Meanwhile, Thiel has actually done better under Biden: Avril Haines, a former Palantir consultant, is the current Director of National Intelligence. Chafkin ends with a string of standard establishment-Democratic sententia. Were Thiel to get his way, American society would be soiled by corrupt elites, coarse racism, constant surveillance and colossal inequality. Imagine that.

Max Chafkin, The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power (Bloomsbury Publishing), pp. 400, 25£

Harry Goodwin is a third-year History student at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and former editor of The Cambridge Student.

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