Discover more from Wisdom of Crowds
The Temptation of Peter Thiel
The billionaire investor sees the apocalypse coming. Whether that's a good or bad thing depends on your tolerance for excitement.
Editor’s note: We’re thrilled to be publishing the brilliant author and novelist Tara Isabella Burton for the first time on Wisdom of Crowds, although some of you might recall her appearance on the podcast earlier this year. Her latest novel is The World Cannot Give, which Entertainment Weekly called “equal parts dangerous and delicious.” Her forthcoming novel Here in Avalon is out in January. Here, she writes about the fascinating—and quite dark—philosophical worldview of one the most influential tech billionaires of our era. Enjoy.
Peter Thiel thinks we should all be less worried about the apocalypse. In a November 3 speech, given at the Novitate Conference commemorating the birth of the French philosopher Rene Girard, the influential billionaire investor painted a portrait of the end of human existence at once terrifying and, in Thiel’s highly aestheticized telling, more than a little tantalizing. Condemning our present “zombie period” of neoliberal modernity as a "low testosterone world" of dysfunctional “modern gender dynamics" and nihilistic solipsism of "amus[ing] ourselves with memes and TikTok videos,” Thiel offered listeners another option.
Reject the “peace and safety of the Antichrist”—which for Thiel means a “one-world totalitarian state”—in favor of “nihilistic action.” Peppering his speech, titled “Nihilism is Not Enough,” with references as wide-ranging as sixteenth-century English scientist Francis Bacon to the controversial Weimar-era political theorist Carl Schmitt, Thiel concluded in a bombastic vision of cosmic collapse: “Silence has descended upon the earth as if an angel were about to open the seventh and last seal of an apocalypse.”
In a Q&A immediately following the speech, Thiel ramped up his rhetoric, saying "In any accounting of saintliness, Mother Theresa gets ranked probably more highly than Constantine: the first Christian Emperor. But...I personally have a preference for the Christianity of Constantine to the Christianity of Mother Theresa. In our world maybe we need a little bit more of that."
If all this sounds a little esoteric, that’s part of the point. Less coherent than vaguely allusive, Thiel’s public speeches rarely add up to straightforward policy proposals. At times, Thiel’s public politics—like his seemingly stochastic choice of projects to fund—seem to have been conjured by an artificial intelligence trained exclusively on Twitter accounts with anime avatars. Thiel has wholly or partially bankrolled—among other projects—Hulk Hogan’s defamation lawsuit against Gawker, the Trump campaign, an anti-woke film festival, a Catholic religious app, a libertarian seasteading program, and transhumanist initiatives to hack human biological limitation, plus multiple conferences on Thiel’s Stanford mentor Girard. Variously and uneasily described by befuddled journalists as “reactionary” and “libertarian”, Thiel has become the de facto patron of transhumanists and traditionalist Catholics alike. His most common descriptor, contrarian—journalist Max Chavkin chose it as the title of Thiel’s beleaguered biography—is an epithet borne less of accuracy than exhaustion. Whatever the current thing is—to paraphrase one popular meme—Peter Thiel is probably against it. Or else he’s funding it. Who can possibly say?
Wisdom of Crowds is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
In this, Thiel appears to be following the playbook of the German-Jewish twentieth-century philosopher Leo Strauss: on whom he has written, and of whose works he has often spoken approvingly. (Earlier this year, after Thiel spoke at a New Criterion event, he was presented with a special gift: a rare edition of one of Strauss’s books). Among Strauss’ most influential ideas was the conviction that the world’s greatest thinkers—from Plato to Hobbes—intentionally obfuscated their ideas through layers of irony and abstraction, to be understood properly only by a knowing, superior few.
The medium is the message, as media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said. And it is precisely in Thiel’s Straussian ambiguity—the vibes that his speeches and spending alike elicit—that we can better understand his message: one that transcends the easy binary of “Burning Man libertarian” and “Trumpian conservative.” To do so is urgent.
Thiel’s ideology is, increasingly, becoming the ideology of much of Silicon Valley and the New Right alike. It is a conflation of libertarianism, reactionary sentiment, and instinctive anti-wokeism, that characterize Thiel and Silicon Valley fellow-travellers like Elon Musk. It is, at its core, a religious mission, although—despite Thiel’s close partnerships with Christian organizations and his ambiguous statements about his own Christianity, Thiel described himself as “religious but not spiritual” during the talk—it is not a Christian one.
Rather, Thiel, like many others in Silicon Valley, appears to advocate for a kind of Nietzschean techno-vitalism: a faith not in genuine ideals but in their power to shape and subdue a fundamentally stupid and innately violent populace: a populace who know enough only to want whatever it is they think that other people want: the cornerstone of Girard’s theory of mimetic desire.
Despite the purported title of Thiel’s talk—“Nihilism is Not Enough”—it is a fundamentally nihilistic vision. On this view, humans fall into two categories. On the one hand, you have the clear-eyed quasi-divine mages of technology, like Francis Bacon (who, Thiel reminds us, “saw that mastery in science was inseparable from the mastery in control of all things.”). Or, say, like Thiel himself. On the other hand you have the fools, the sheeple, the so-called NPCs, or “non-playable characters” who can be controlled by those who know how to control their desire. For Girard, Thiel’s former teacher, mimetic desire was downstream of sin: a perversion of our desire for God, warped by our yearning for what other people want, be it money, sex, fame, or online clout. For Thiel, who was an early investor in Facebook, mimetic desire appears to be a useful strategic tool. Control the memes and you can control the world.
Thiel—like Musk—despises the sclerosis of liberal modernity, with its focus on equality and democracy, its aversion to natural hierarchy, and its embrace of what Nietzsche would have called slave morality in the form of the ideology of social justice. The power, at once dangerous and dizzying, of human desire has been denatured by the modern world’s fear of violence. In his speech, likewise, Thiel saves special ire for, "uncontroversial academic bureaucrats who do not design the machine, but rather exist as tiny cogs within," those who “repress our would-be [Francis] Bacons” by failing to allow them to occupy their proper place in the social hierarchy.
At its core, techno-vitalism is as much an aesthetic mood as a political one: liberal democracy has just made life plain boring. It saps even our desires. (“The baby boomers and Gen Xers were the last generations that could unabashedly want things,” Thiel has said, “fast cars, luxury houses, wealth. Millennials, and Gen Zs in the 2020s must be content with marijuana, Netflix, and social media.”) And that’s where the apocalypse comes in.
Our fear of apocalyptic violence, Thiel argues, has made us weak, susceptible to the Antichrist he sees—in a marginal theological reading—as synonymous with a one-world totalitarian, implicitly woke, government. Our desire to avoid violence will make us susceptible to that Antichrist’s mimetic power.
In his speech he draws heavily, if unevenly, on Carl Schmitt’s reading of a niche Christian concept known as the katechon: a kind of restraining force of order that stops the final apocalyptic violence from taking place: at once desirable (insofar as the apocalypse isn’t happening) and undesirable (insofar as it stops the final coming of Christ). The katechon, Thiel argues, is not enough. The truest state of human beings, he implies without ever stating too bluntly, involves a willingness to loosen our social restraints, to face once more the primordial end of the world. Thiel’s fetishized language of accelerationism—the desire for social change so rapid and destabilizing that our world order transforms into something new and strange and perhaps terrible—makes his position plain, in the way the actual structure of his speech does not.
“We would like to put off the inevitable choice between Antichrist and risking Armageddon for as long as possible,” Thiel says, “But even those soothed by a listless world know that all mediocre things must come to an end.” His language makes his meaning listlessness and mediocrity against a coming change one of action rather than ideas. This change, Thiel says, “which manifests itself in places other than our writings. Books themselves will have no more than minor importance. The events within which such books emerge will be infinitely more eloquent than whatever we write.”
It is not the first time Thiel has used the rhetorical strategy of presenting lovingly-described reactionary imagery, while stopping short of openly endorsing it.
As I wrote in Mosaic earlier this year, his New Criterion speech used a similar device. There, Thiel framed our contemporary culture war as a binary clash. On one side: “a kind of Nietzschean, anti-diversity move that I find incredibly tempting in an emotional sense”—he name-checked Bronze Age Pervert, the pseudonym of vitalist eugenicist Costin Alamariu. On the other: the “Judeo-Christian” narrative he elsewhere described as “closely adjacent” to the “so-called woke religion” he so derides. He presents us with these two options—one he concedes as compelling, the other he links to the ascendancy of woke culture—before subtly refusing to declare his own position, leaving Bronze Age Pervert implicit as the aesthetic winner.
To understand Thielism and accelerationist techno-vitalism more broadly, is to understand its libertarian and reactionary elements not as opposed to one another but as inexorably fused. The modern world order must be overturned in order to restore the kind of powerful, implicitly masculine, energy that is the dark heart of human existence. Those techno-mages with the technological and mimetic tool—to seize power will inevitability, in this vision, restore their places in the natural hierarchy.
What makes Thiel’s vision either appealing or dangerous, depending on your perspective, is that he is in fact on to something. He understands that much of modern life is alienating and boring, that we have lost a sense meaning and purpose in civic life, that there are truths about the profundity of human existence that life in America in 2023 seems designed to obscure. (Thiel makes no mention of the fact that he might, via his early investment in Facebook, be responsible for some of them). He has been successful and influential, in part, by finding and funding well-meaning, thoughtful, and intelligent people who correctly sense that something needs to change, and are seeking the tools and vocabulary to elucidate what and how. If he controls the memes, it’s because he has an uncanny gift for reading, as it were, the vibe shifts of the past decade. Many of us are not just hungry for, but desperate for, a world where things matter.
But Thiel’s apocalyptic vision—as aesthetically compelling as “cosmic war” might be when compared to scrolling TikTok—is no less nihilistic. The apocalypse with which he tempts those disaffected by “liberal modernity” is no closer to real transcendence than pornography is to real sex. And if we were to worry about a totalitarian unifying force meme-ing us all into submission there are worse places to see the shadow of an Antichrist than on the half-eaten apple on the back of our iPhones.
If nihilism is, in fact, not enough, then we need a far better, most constructive account of what comes next: one rooted not in the frisson of transgressive aesthetics but in a robust quest for the best of what technology can offer. We need prophets of technological change capable of envisioning a positive relationship between human potential and human goods: rooted in awareness that all of us, “techno-mage” or “NPC”, are at our core vulnerable and interdependent beings.
The quest for modern meaning Thiel has consistently fostered—and funded—is a worthy one. But the accelerationalist techno-vitalism of Thiel’s speech is, ultimately, a dead end.
Wisdom of Crowds is a platform challenging premises and understanding first principles on politics and culture. Join us!