Studies of technology tycoons have become a staple of the biography shelf in the past decade. Bestsellers such as Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance have walked a fine line between candid exploration and hagiographic veneration.
While showing their subjects as ruthless businesspeople who mistreat their employees and the people in their personal lives, they also praise their innovations as paving the way to a better future. Their personal cruelty and narcissism are often painted as the price the world has to pay for genius.
These depictions conform with Silicon Valley’s self-image, as big tech companies claim that their operations offer solutions to all the world’s political and social problems. Government regulation, unions and taxation, by contrast, are forces that impede progress.
But as Bloomberg journalist Max Chafkin demonstrates in his new biography of right-wing entrepreneur Peter Thiel, the progressivism of Silicon Valley is a carefully constructed myth. Since the Silicon Valley area in northern California in the United States became associated with cutting-edge information technology during the Cold War, the region’s success has relied on its extensive business and political connections with the US military and big business.
As Chafkin writes, its dominant culture has always been Ayn Rand-style libertarianism, which views the rich as heroic figures who deserve untrammelled power and retains a deep hostility to ideals of democracy and egalitarianism.
Not a vampire
These trends are exemplified in the career of venture capitalist Thiel, who made his fortune by investing early in companies such as PayPal (with Musk) and later Facebook, which has now been rebranded to Meta.
Thiel has a public reputation for eccentricity. Widely circulating news stories have him buying land in New Zealand to survive a future apocalypse and promoting a company involved in researching how to prolong life. The latter included harvesting young people’s blood, which led to the surreal headline “Billionaire Trump supporter Peter Thiel denies being a vampire” in the Independent newspaper in 2018.
But behind these stories is a cynical and wealthy power broker who used his fortune not only to support Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, but also retains links to even more politically extreme figures in the alt-right movement.
Chafkin shows that Thiel – who was born in Germany, spent time in South Africa-occupied Namibia as a child and later publicly defended apartheid while a student at Stanford University in California – is motivated by a dangerous mix of rampant self-interest and genuine ideological conviction.
His support for Trump was rooted partly in ensuring a regulatory environment that would allow minimal taxation for himself and other billionaires. But he also viewed Trump and his supporters as an opening to create an alliance between right-wing libertarianism and xenophobic and nationalist political movements.
Thiel, Chafkin makes clear, is motivated by a reactionary vision of the future that combines free movement of capital and the rich with hardline anti-immigration policies. Despite saying that political democracy is a mistake and policy should be dictated by the rich, he saw Trump’s mass support base as an opportunity to attain more power.
His anti-regulation stance does not translate into a rejection of authoritarian power. In contrast, much of his fortune is linked to his company Palantir, which conducts data surveillance for the US security state, including involvement in the harsh migrant policing regime of the country’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Repackaging for the internet
Thiel was a formidable chess player from a young age. He attended Stanford University to study law, but spent much of his time running The Stanford Review, which specialised in angry tirades against liberals and left-wingers on campus. From the late 1980s, Thiel associated himself with the “culture wars” of the Republican Party.
He turned his chess honed skill of anticipating the future into working as a venture capitalist, providing start-up financing for technology companies. Rather than having a genius for radical new ideas, however, Thiel’s strength lay in working out how to repackage existing business models for the internet age.
Chafkin writes that instead of pioneering major scientific advances, the tech industry relies on privatisation and monopolisation. Uber, for example, found a way to enclose the taxi cab business, while Amazon swallowed up traditional retail.
Thiel combined this approach with his ideologies. He supported PayPal because he saw it as a way of circumventing government regulation of banking transactions. And in the early 2000s he became involved with Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook’s internal motto was “move fast, break things”, which meant “disrupting” existing means of receiving news. Thiel saw it as a space perfect for unrestrained right-wing propaganda and fearmongering.
Facebook has been criticised extensively during the Covid-19 pandemic for providing a platform for extreme conspiracism and harmful medical misinformation. Chafkin makes the case that this was not only from a lack of oversight, but also the result of the financial and political model it has followed from its inception.
While building his wealth throughout the 2000s, Thiel threw his weight behind fringe ideologies. Some of the people to whom he has given patronage include “neo-reactionary” thinker Curtis Yarvin, who has called for tech chief executive-run dictatorships to replace electoral democracy and once said that “although I’m not a white nationalist, I’m not exactly allergic to the stuff”.
In the 2010s, as the overtly racist and fascist-aligned alt-right began to grow online, Thiel became, in the words of one of his friends, “Nazi-curious”. He engaged with this movement while ensuring he distanced himself from some of its more notorious members, refusing to meet white nationalist Richard Spencer after he was caught on camera using the Nazi victory salute Sieg Heil.
In contrast, he viewed Trump as a far more credible political ally. When Trump began his run for the US presidency in 2015, his inflammatory statements on race and immigration caused many Silicon Valley companies – which finance both Democratic and Republican candidates to buy influence – to shun his fundraising efforts for fear of backlash from their staff and the wider public.
Thiel had no such reservations. He committed money and time to supporting Trump, even speaking at the 2016 Republican National Convention where Trump was chosen as the presidential nominee.
Once Trump was in office, Thiel hoped to capitalise on his support. His plan was to have extreme libertarians placed in high positions in the US federal government and to replace public institutions with a technocracy.
In practice, internal Washington politics stymied his megalomaniacal schemes and he was unable to make any impactful appointments while Trump was in power. But Thiel seems to have lost none of his political ambition. In a 2020 interview, he claimed that Covid-19 means the “future has been set free”. For Thiel, Chafkin writes, the pandemic is “a chance to reset society according to his plans and ideals”.
These ideals amount to little more than making capitalism even more brutal, nihilistic and destructive than it is currently.