The Enigma of Peter Thiel
There Is No Enigma — He's a Fascist
Peter Thiel is a fascist. There’s really no better word for what he is. But, for some reason, people have trouble grasping this or just coming out and saying it.
In his biography of Thiel, The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power, Max Chafkin writes, “The Thiel ideology is complicated and, in parts, self-contradictory, and will take many of the pages that follow to explore, but it combines an obsession with technological progress with nationalist politics—a politics that at times has seemingly flirted with white supremacy.” Let’s see, we’ve go some futurism, nationalism, maybe a little bit of racism here and there…hmm, what does that all add up to? What a mystery this guy is!
In a recent piece for the Washington Post about Thiel’s support for populist candidates, Greg Sargent writes:
At first glance, it’s hard to discern why Thiel is heavily investing in them. Thiel is sometimes described as a radical libertarian, while Masters and Vance represent a form of conservative populism that is supposedly hostile to libertarianism and envisions the robust use of state power to fight liberal cultural enemies wherever necessary.
Where to begin? First of all, yes, Thiel’s libertarianism is about freedom—freedom for him and people like him, the entrepreneurial elite of the capitalist class. He’s openly antidemocratic. In an essay for the Cato Institute, Thiel once wrote, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible…” Why? Because if you empower the demos, they will eventually vote for restrictions on the power of capitalists. and therefore, restrictions on their “freedom.” He continues, “Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy‘ into an oxymoron.” In that 2009 essay, Thiel imagines a kind of futurist program of utopian projects “beyond politics” in cyberspace or “seasteading,” but it’s clear now he’s returned to believing in politics, or at least an anti-political form of politics.
The brand of radical libertarianism favored by Thiel and his crony Curtis Yarvin has long preferred crackpot authoritarian solutions that would enhance capitalist domination. In the ’90s, Rothbard, who took his primary political inspiration from the America First movement, conceived of a “Right-Wing Populist” strategy that envisioned a Trump-like figure who could “short-circuit” the political establishment and smash the remnants of the New Deal order. Then the inspiration was Hoppe has advocated monarchism and “covenant communities” organized on essentially totalitarian basis. His book Democracy: The God That Failed divides humanity into producers and subhuman, parasitic “pests.”
But being anti-democratic is one thing, but how could the libertarian, the defender of individual freedom, the believer in the market ever really be a fascist, an ideology of the collective mass and the state? I think part of the problem is that there is still a very cartoonish notion of what actually-existing fascism looked like.
It’s important to remember that fascism, especially in its original incarnation in Italy, was never a fully coherent ideology. Like the symbol of the fasces itself, it’s a bundle of things bound together, a syncretic and cobbled-together system of politics that encompassed several ideological tendencies. As the Madonna song goes, it brought together the bourgeoisie and the rebel. Mussolini’s party began with avant-garde futurists and radical syndicalists in the cities, but within a couple years attracted the most conservative sections of the bourgeoisie in the countryside. The historian Alexander de Grand calls this intrinsic fragmentation hiding behind consensus “hyphenated fascism”: so, you had conservative-fascism, nationalist-fascism, technocratic-fascism, syndicalist-fascism, Catholic-fascism etc. Each saw in the fascist movement and state the possibility of realizing their own program. This was made possible because of the excessively abstract terms of fascist pronouncements and the political skill and mercurial nature of fascist leaders: it was about being opposed to common enemies like liberalism and Marxism while at the same time “restoring national greatness.” Everybody had their own idea about what that looked like. But all would replace tiresome and frustrating regime of democratic political contestation with the rule of competenze, or, what the sociologist of fascism Dylan Riley calls the “a technocratic rejection of politics as such.”
Much of the industrialist class might have preferred to stick with the laissez-faire liberalism of the 19th century and their own industrial associations, but they acknowledged times had changed, that they needed fascist techniques of mass control, and so “reluctantly” made their accommodation with the fascist regime, looking forward to the promise of labor peace and the business possibilities created by the military-industrial complex. It was the most pragmatic option and they found fascism’s elitism, the promotion of the idea that were special groups born to rule, to contain some flattering notions that jibed with their own self-conception. While some capitalists embraced fascism instrumentally, as preventing the worse fate of socialist revolution and dealing with pesky strikes, many began to identify with them more closely, albeit often with a low public profile, and helped to fund fascist parties. In France, one, the champagne magnate Pierre Taittinger, even attempted to start his own.
Ludwig von Mises, the Austrian economist and godfather of the type of radical libertarianism professed by Thiel, wrote in 1927, “It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history. But though its policy has brought salvation for the moment, it is not of the kind which could promise continued success. Fascism was an emergency makeshift. To view it as something more would be a fatal error.” It would be easy to beat up on von Mises, but he’s just performing his ideological role as spokesman of the capitalist class: this rationalization of fascism as a sort of “custodial dictatorship” that would fix things up for capitalism and “civilization’s” sake was virtually a commonplace among interwar bourgeoisie. And while Mussolini’s regime still retained some constitutional trappings and moved toward conservative normalization that still seemed like a plausible-enough outcome. (It’s worth noting that it’s this sort of “emergency-fascism” that predominates in the thinking of Michael Anton and Curtis Yarvin, both Thiel cronies. Thiel helped Anton, the author of the “Flight 93 Election” essay, get a job on the National Security Council.)
Borrowing his own terminology of going “back to the future” or doing “retro-futurism,” Thiel is a throwback to the era of the fascist industrialist. Some, like Fritz Thyssen, came to regret their association with the regimes they helped bring to power and had to flee, but others stuck around and took advantage of lucrative government contracts and slave labor.
Thiel’s politics participates in fascism among several other hyphenated axes, as well. Looking at his biography, on consistent strand that he has a deeply elitist worldview and he’s obsessed with fantasies of power and control. This shouldn’t be surprising when you take into consideration at his childhood. Born to conservative parents in West Germany, Thiel spent his childhood in Namibia, then under administration by apartheid South Africa. His father was in charge of engineers in a uranium mine, where a black workforce from the “homelands” were lorded over by white mangers like the Thiels. Chafkin describes the working conditions of the mine:
White managers, like the Thiels, had access to a brand-new medical and dental center in Swakopmund and membership in the company country club. Black laborers, including some with families, lived in a dorm in a work-camp near the mine and did not have access to the medical facilities provided to whites. Walking off the job was a criminal offense, and workers who failed to carry their ID card into the mine were routinely thrown in jail for the day.
Uranium mining is, by nature, risky. A report published after the end of apartheid by the Namibia Support Committee, a pro-independence group, described conditions at the mine in grim terms, including an account of a contract laborer on the construction project—the project Klaus’s company was helping to oversee—who said workers had not been told they were building a uranium mine and were thus unaware of the risks of radiation. The only clue had been that white employees would hand out wages from behind glass, seemingly trying to avoid contamination themselves. The report mentioned workers “dying like flies,” in 1976, while the mine was under construction.
I once called Thiel’s ideology baasskapp, an Afrikaans word meaning “boss-hood,” without fully realizing his intimate connection with apartheid. I think this experience still forms the core of his entire worldview, that of a petit-bourgeois or professional-managerial adjunct to this particularly raw and brutal form of colonialism and capitalist exploitation: there are highly-competent, technical managers with a crystalline vision, the engineers, and then there is a biologically-inferior, racial underclass of labor that has to be kept in line. There is a nationalist and national security dimension here, too: this uranium mine was part of South Africa’s clandestine attempt to develop a nuclear weapons program, to ensure its sovereignty in a sea of increasingly unfriendly nations. Thiel is might be himself a high industrialist but he still retains much of the worldview of an “organic intellectual,” an intermediary manager, in the apartheid system.
You can see hints of the kind of nasty, direct elitism when Thiel talks about himself as belong to a “high IQ” group and disdaining the herd, but usually it is mystified and laundered through fantasy, literally so, as his conceptions are highly informed by Dungeons & Dragons and J.R.R. Tolkien that he absorbed as a child. But tellingly he identifies with the “bad guys” in these worlds. He named his company Palantir, after a very dark piece of magic from Tolkien’s novels:
Thiel called the project Palantir, after the mythical Elvish “seeing stone” in Lord of the Rings that allows characters to observe faraway events or to look into the future. It was a curious choice: While Tolkien’s palantiri are powerful, they’re not unambiguously virtuous. In the books, the stones are chiefly used by Sauron, the Satanic character who aspires to subjugate Middle Earth, to spy, communicate with conspirators, or manipulate other characters who don’t realize that the stones are dangerous to handle.
And elsewhere, he just openly said he prefers Mordor, “Gandalf’s the crazy person who wants to start a war…Mordor is this technological civilization based on reason and science. Outside of Mordor, it’s all sort of mystical and environmental and nothing works.” It’s almost absurd how much pains he takes to say “I’m into evil!” and no one pays attention. You can also see these fantasies of superiority play out in Yarvin’s imagination: he recently wrote an essay calling himself a “dark elf,” part of some race of culturally-advanced beings or whatever.
These dweebish fantasies of power and domination might appear especially pathetic to us, but they are not really different in kind from the ones that animated the original fascists. See for example Nicholas-Goodrick Clarke’s excellent The Occult Roots of Nazism, his history of the odd world of fantasists and cranks who created the “dream-world” of Nazism, fantasies that contained “elitism and purity, a sense of mission in the face of conspiracy, and millenarian vision of a felicitous national future.” (At this point, one might propose another “hyphenated fascism:” dork-fascism or nerd-fascism or dweeb-fascism, as you like.)
Palantir, this company, is a surveillance platform deeply involved with the national security state. Thiel may now back isolationist candidates, but in his business dealings he’s an enthusiastic partner of the national security state and backer of its wars. He also fantasized about a kind of global network of imperial control operated from within the secret police apparatus:
Thiel…also argued that the United States should try to use extrajudicial and extralegal methods—finding, as he put it, “a political framework that operates outside the checks and balances of representative democracy as described in high school textbooks”—to deal with terrorism. “Instead of the United Nations,” he wrote, “we should consider Echelon, the secret coordination of the world’s intelligence services, as the decisive path to a truly global pax Americana.”
The reference was to a Cold War‒era intelligence network in which the United States—with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the U.K.—used satellites to spy on Soviet communications, but it also called to mind the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism law hastily passed by Congress and signed into law by Bush after 9/11. Among other things, the law allowed government agencies to amass enormous troves of data—phone and electronic records from suspected terrorists and, as it would turn out, U.S. citizens.
Under the Trump administration, Palantir would receive massive contracts and he would try to weasel his way onto the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board.
If this all doesn’t sound fascist enough for you, consider his network of political and social connections. In the White House, he was allied with Steve Bannon’s ultra-right populist wing. In 2016, he was due to address the Property and Freedom Society, a group founded by the economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe, that brings together radical libertarians and white nationalists. His associate and former employee Jeff Giesea is a funder and organizer of alt-right causes, so much so he is purportedly the author of “How to Fund the Alt-Right.” In Chafkin’s biography there are dozens of points of contact with the far right from dinners with VDARE contributors to a meeting with Milo Yiannopoulis. Then, of course, is his primary court philosopher Curtis Yarvin, who I’ve discussed many other times. Let’s look at his political vision once again:
Curtis Yarvin, the neo-reactionary intellectual and Thiel’s longtime friend….He published an essay that claimed that voters in “urban communities” had, through some mix of manipulation by organizers and actual voter fraud, stolen the election for Biden, or “China Joe,” as he called the president-elect, referring to Biden’s supposed deference to Beijing. Then Yarvin suggested that Republicans execute what he called a “very legal coup” to “steal the election back” by getting Republican-controlled state legislatures to invalidate the vote, and then having Trump claim emergency powers, ignoring any interference from Congress or the judiciary and using the National Guard to enforce his orders. After that, Yarvin argued, Trump could “liquidate the powerful, prestigious, and/or wealthy institutions of the old regime, inside and outside the formal government,” which, he said, would be followed by the achievement of “a singular vision of utopia.”
If that’s not the product of a fascist imagination, I don’t know what possibly could be.
So, let’s sum up. Peter Thiel believes he belongs to an elite group, often understood in implicitly or explicitly racial terms, that is entitled to set aside democratic governance in favor of pursuing a program of technological progress and national restoration. He believes the political means to accomplish this is through a charismatic leader with manipulative, populist appeals to past national glory and against parasitic immigrants and culturally decadent liberalism. For him, even the most milquetoast, reformist liberalism is “tantamount to communism.” He’s obsessed with romanticized fantasies of absolute power, domination, and control. He dreams of wielding the the national security state against enemies both foreign and domestic. He envisioned a kind of imperialist world-state controlled not through deliberative bodies like the U.N. but directly by the intelligence and secret police bureaus. He combines the ideology of white collar, petit-bourgeois intermediary class with its emphases direct management techniques and closely-held ownership with the grandiose, world-spanning designs of an industrial titan. There’s really no contradiction within Peter Thiel’s politics, they are quite consistent: he’s just realized, more clearly than his opponents often, that there’s ultimately a contradiction between the rule of capital and democracy, and the way to deal with this contradiction, as far as he’s concerned, is to do away with democracy.
What else do you really need to know? The man is a fascist, whether he fully admits to himself or not. He’s probably the most clearly fascist prominent figure in the U.S. today, including Trump. I suspect that he’s actually fully self-conscious about it, but knows that it would be politically counter-productive to come out as such and he probably views his ideas as some new, updated “Fascism 2.0.” In any case, we should not deceive ourselves or beat about the bush any longer.
Do other members of his class share his view that some form of dictatorship is a necessity for their continued domination? Can he persuade the other members of his class to back his next pet political project? I would say, at this point, probably not. It seems like he’s targeting the middle class now: the “heartland vote” with the campaigns Masters and Vance, and, with his cultural initiatives, attempting to recruit “organic intellectuals” that would help vie for cultural hegemony. All of this might quickly fail, but in the face of some combination of economic crisis, labor upheaval, and a panic about liberal cultural overreach, who knows what’s possible?
With excellent timing, a gushing interview with Thiel in UnHerd today (the British Quillette). The whole bundle of the fasces is there: futurism (we focus too much on the interior, rather than things that whizz and bang), Christian mysticism (society needs a "Christian vision of history" to truly progress), dismissal of bureaucracy (abolish the FDA!), pro-Imperialism (literally, both the UK and US fell off when they stopped being implicitly imperial). The comments on Europe reveal the sense of frustration with the boring reality of democratic compromise and incrementalism:
"Failing other options, Thiel thinks even bleak or apocalyptic visions are better than no vision at all. The picture of European climate catastrophe associated with Greta Thunberg is, as he sees it, one of only three realistic European futures; the other two are “Islamic sharia law”, and “Chinese Communist AI”. He views the social-democratic models typical of contemporary European politics as variations on the theme of stagnation: “a sort of eternal Groundhog Day”. And while Greta’s vision is “in some ways too apocalyptic, in some ways not apocalyptic enough”, it is at least “a very concrete picture”, and represents the least worst of the three alternatives to stagnation."
He found the perfect interviewer though. Her conclusion:
"And as I’ve argued, the alternative to such figures may not be democracy but governance by a decentralised post-democratic swarm (analogous, perhaps, to what Thiel calls “Chinese Communist AI”). Given these options, we may yet conclude that the political return of human lords and princes — however unnervingly untrammelled their power, or remorselessly tech-optimist their worldview — is far from the worst option currently on the table. The premodern world of aristocratic patronage was far from being a cultural desert, an achievement that contrasts sharply with the militantly anti-aesthetic (and anti-human) character of post-democratic swarm politics. If I’m right about the prognosis for liberal democracy in the digital age, the available options for our future may be culturally vibrant human-led neo-feudalism, or aggressively anti-cultural swarm governance. And in this case, even those of us who mourn the passing of the liberal world may yet find ourselves, however ambivalently, on the side of Caesar."
The usual deeply troubling, brilliant piece from John Ganz. Here is my contribution to Unpopular Front: the proliferation of small typographical errors in these essays reduces both the clarity of thinking and the fun of reading this otherwise extremely rewarding and insightful substack. Sometimes the typos are bad enough that I can’t really understand what is meant in a particular sentence. I presume that a good, available proofreader is both hard to find and expensive, but I believe it would be worth it. (And they say reader comments are trivial—where do people get this stuff?)