ÜYou have to search for a surprisingly long time on the list of billionaires in the American magazine “Forbes” before you come across Peter Thiel’s entry. With his fortune, estimated there at the beginning of April 2022 at around $5.2 billion, he is surrounded by other Silicon Valley oligarchs such as Elon Musk ($279.5 billion), Jeff Bezos ($184.5 billion) and Bill Gates ( 133.7 billion) far away. The American business journalist Max Chafkin explains in his biography, which was also published in German, why the German-born investor is often mentioned in the same breath as these heavyweights.
Chafkin traces in detail Thiel’s path from the sheltered son of German emigrants – Thiel’s father Klaus worked as an engineer for an American company – to the leadership circles of the Trump Republicans. The book is also remarkable because many interlocutors preferred to remain anonymous. Thiel has been seen as someone who doesn’t forgive indiscretions from his private life, at least since he had Nick Denton’s media company Gawker sued for bankruptcy.
Provocation potential and attention generator
Chafkin’s book resembles a cubist portrait, stitching together all facets of its subject matter to make it more readable. This is also necessary, because Peter Thiel has staged his public personality since his law studies at Stanford as a collection of the most controversial views possible, which are also welcome to contradict or even exclude each other. As a married homosexual, he is a strong advocate for Trump Republicans and ensures Facebook is at their service. As an investor, he conjures up technological visions of the future and at the same time hates the globalization that is necessary for this. As an American nationalist, he obtained New Zealand citizenship in order to be able to retreat to remote islands in an emergency. As a libertarian, he does everything in his power to render state institutions such as the FDA incapable of acting, but at the same time anchors the data analysis company Palantir, which he controls, deeply in the structures of the military-industrial complex, which is supported by billions in taxes.
Chafkin’s book is therefore originally entitled “The Contrarian”. In it, Thiel appears as a right-wing libertarian culture fighter in constant opposition to the tumultuous masses, a mainstream that he locates somewhere to the left, even after Reagan, the two Bush presidents and the free-market radicals of the 1990s. On the one hand, this can work as a creative technique: In his business bestseller “Zero to One”, he describes how he asks candidates during the interview what convictions they would hold against the majority opinion in order to derive business ideas from them.
On the other hand, he docks with the American right-wing extremist scene with the same gestures, without actually becoming part of this “alt-right”; he uses them as provocation potential and attention generator for his own projects. Chafkin’s portrayals at times recall a far-right version of what Tom Wolfe described as America’s party left in his 1970 essay Radical Chic.
The entrepreneur as redeemer figure
Chafkin quotes monopoly expert Matt Stoller’s assessment that Thiel is ultimately a nihilist. In fact, one might get the impression that he’s using ideologies like Ayn Rand’s objectivism, diverse flavors of libertarianism, or isolationist “America First” nationalism as transportation to get from A to B in a given business situation. In the course of his chronologically structured documentation, however, Chafkin does work out some basic features, if not principles, of Thiel’s thoughts and actions.
So “Make America Great Again” shouldn’t be an empty formula for Thiel. He admires the expansion of industrial society in the nineteenth century and in “Zero to One” can quote Karl Marx as a contemporary witness to capitalist power and efficiency. The future that Thiel means is a retro future that develops into conditions before the labor movement, the welfare state and Woodstock hippies, often caused by catastrophic events. Thiel bets on the decline and fall of western civilization. Sometimes his own ideology even costs him money. Because Thiel does not believe in the climate catastrophe and “green products”, he rejected the opportunity offered by Elon Musk to get into Tesla Motors at an early stage. Had he noticed, it would take far less time to scroll down the Forbes list to find his name.
The savior figure in the scenario outlined by Thiel is the entrepreneur, who should not be subject to any limits; he must be allowed to strive for a monopoly position with maximum severity and efficiency. Thiel likes to read science fiction, and Chafkin’s biography can be summed up with a word from this genre. The concept of terraforming often occurs in classic SF novels: a planet is made habitable for humans at great expense, its old ecosphere is suppressed or destroyed. One could say that Thiel is doing Thielforming. With his money and his connections, he arranges the world as he needs it in order to achieve the greatest possible profit and power for himself. There could be consequences because Thiel is committed to re-electing Donald Trump and he despises Europe, as Zero to One reveals. Chafkin’s book reads like a warning.
Max Chafkin: “Peter Thiel”. How the godfather of Silicon Valley rules the world. FinanzBuch Verlag, Munich 2021. 450 pages, hardcover, €22.