If you read my old blog (I’m assuming you didn’t), you would know I wrote a lot about Peter Thiel. I plan on writing about him a lot more on this blog, and just haven’t yet. I don’t use this lightly, because I always avoid reducing my politics to something mystical, and I don’t really think of the world in these terms, but: Peter Thiel is the closest thing to true Evil, according to my worldview, as you can get. He is Evil.
If this blog has any singular political goal, it would be destroying Peter Thiel, what he represents, and the people like him. In fact, my biggest fear is that Peter Thiel, or someone remarkably like him, will become the President of the US. Or even worse, the private, tech, finance etc sector gains so much power that it functions like a pseudo-government, because Thiel will certainly use this to gain power.
I recently found a syllabus online of a class that Peter Thiel would be co-teaching a class at Stanford University for Winter Quarter 2019 on “Sovereignty and the Limits of Globalization and Technology”. I will go into some surface level aspects of Thiel’s ideology and some of the shit he’s done, to set the stage. Then, I will delve into the reading list, and the actual text of the syllabus.
This will be a long post, multi-part post. In this section of the post, I will focus on giving context to who Peter Thiel is as an “intellectual” and a public character. I will also focus on some of the information I’ve gathered about Russell Berman, the actual professor in charge of the class. In future posts, I will dissect the syllabus.
Peter Thiel is a finance capitalist who made a fortune investing in Paypal and Facebook early on. He now has his metaphorical Capital-Hand in a lot of Technocorporate pockets. Unlike the HR mascots representing tech companies, like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Elon Musk, Peter Thiel symbolizes the invisible machinery within the technocapitalist machine.
In a mainstream context, Peter Thiel is most well-known for putting Gawker out of business. He bankrolled Hulk Hogan to destroy the website in court for him. Last year, when Thiel already destroyed Gawker, and was in the bidding to buy what remains, Washington Post (which, I should add, is owned by equally vampiric Jeff Bezos) posted an opinion piece, that grazes against the truth of the situation pretty well:
Gawker’s tech-focused website Valleywag trained a skeptical and often searing eye on Silicon Valley culture. It reported on what tech titans said they were about and what they actually did.
Thiel was a titan, so he was also a target. Thanks to the lawsuits he funded, Gawker had to stop bothering him. If he gets his way again, any trace of that troublesome writing may be erased.
You don’t have to think that hard to come up with a more current comparison.
“I think they should be described as terrorists, not as writers or reporters,” Thiel once said about the staff of Valleywag.
“The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” President Trump said last February.
This shows how powerful technocrat capital is. Trump has his sights on taking down the press, and we see him as a delirious dumbass. Meanwhile, Thiel was able to quietly destroy a large blog through the American legal system. This gestures to the fact that the U.S. government is so entertwined with capitalist interest, and is a crucial organ to the global capitalist body, that a private capitalist can run the show more effectively than the government, using governmental functions (ie the court system).
From Thiel’s own essay “The Education of a Libertarian”:
I must confess that over the last two decades, I have changed radically on the question of how to achieve these goals [freedom]. Most importantly, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.
This passage is interestingly quoted in Nick Land’s The Dark Enlightenment
Thiel, like all “libertarians” who are void of ideological depth, uses intentionally vague terms. By freedom, Thiel really means deregulation of the capitalist class. And he is right, “freedom”, as used by libertarians, is incompatible with democracy because its a dictatorship of the capitalists. Thiel understands this, and he picked his side.
From “On the Unhappy Consciousness of Neoreactionaries” by Yuk Hui, published in e-flux (most of this passage is quoting Thiel, but I couldn’t find the original source online:
The task of neoreaction seems to be sufficiently summarized in the question raised by Thiel towards the end of his paper:
“The modern West has lost faith in itself. In the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment period, this loss of faith liberated enormous commercial and creative forces. At the same time, this loss has rendered the West vulnerable. Is there a way to fortify the modern West without destroying it altogether, a way of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater?”
In other words, Thiel is interested in accelerating capitalist processes, which have a nature of leveling and disregarding all cultural standards. Since capitalism functions by reducing everything to a money form, then converted into commodity-form, to then generate more money, it’s not an economic system that priviliges cultural or social expression. As I often quote on this blog, Mark Fischer wrote it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capital, and Thiel shows this hard here. Thiel shows a thorough understanding of the negative cultural and existential side effects of capitalism, and yet is so rooted in the ideology that the best alternative he can come up with is “more capitalism, but also vaguely white nationalist buzzwords”.
From “The neo-fascist philosophy that underpins both the alt-right and Silicon Valley technophiles” by Olivia Goldhill in Quartz:
Venture capitalist Peter Thiel is a major backer of [neoreactionary Curtis] Yarvin’s start-ups and, as The Baffler reports, in 2012, Thiel gave a lecture at Stanford with distinct Dark Enlightenment themes. “A startup is basically structured as a monarchy,” he said at the time. “We don’t call it that, of course. That would seem weirdly outdated, and anything that’s not democracy makes people uncomfortable.”
I like this passage because it’s, in my opinion, the clearest, most naked formulation of Thielism as a political economy. He acknowledges the oppressive nature of capitalism, and how the private sector operates in dictatorial terms. The difference between him and me though, is he desires an acceleration of the dictatorial nature of capital.
So, let’s get into the class shall we?
The class is co-taught with Peter Thiel and Russell Berman. I imagine, since Berman is actually a teacher, that he will be steering this ship, and Peter Thiel is more of spectacle sideshow. At the same time, I do think Thiel had a lot of say in the nature of the class, and the reading list. One of the things that tipped me off is the inclusion of Rene Girard on the syllabus, a French Catholic literary critic and theorist, who actually taught Thiel at Stanford, and Thiel has cited as a supreme influence to his worldview. Berman also seems academically interested in Girard too, however.
I studied Rene Girard when I was in undergrad too, so I’m more familiar with his ideas than you’d expect an average person to be. However, that’s more towards the end of the syllabus, and I’ll cover that in another post in this series.
Back to Russell Berman though… what is he about? The class is being taught in the German department, and Berman has his MA and PhD in German Literature. I highly doubt the class is taught in German, and Berman is more a professor of comparative lit with a focus on German lit.
One of the main things I learned about him that I could sink my teeth into is he’s the editor-in-chief of an academic journal called Telos. It was hard for me to find a lot of information on Telos, because there aren’t very many secondary academic sources about academic journals.
But the Wikipedia page on Telos has some good information. I use Wikipedia in an everyday sense, but wouldn’t normally cite it in a circumstance like this. However, I’m just looking for a general overview of the journal in this case.
Here’s how wikipedia describes Telos (with more verbose details cut out, and bolding for emphasis on a later point):
[It was] established in May 1968 to provide the New Left with a coherent theoretical perspective. It sought to expand the Husserlian diagnosis of “the crisis of European sciences” to prefigure a […] social reconstruction relevant for the United States. […] The journal began introducing the ideas of Western Marxism and of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School.
With […] the gradual integration of what remained of the American Left within the Democratic Party, Telos became […] critical of the Left […]. It subsequently undertook a reevaluation of 20th century intellectual history, focusing […] on forgotten and repressed authors and ideas, beginning with Carl Schmitt and American populism. Eventually the journal rejected the traditional divisions between Left and Right as a legitimating mechanism for new class domination and an occlusion of new, post-Fordist political conflicts. This led to a reevaluation of the primacy of culture and to efforts to understand the dynamics of cultural disintegration and reintegration as a precondition for the constitution of that autonomous individuality critical theory had always identified as the telos of Western civilization.
The part I bolded is interesting to me. To me, even if Berman is not a fascist, this is the type of diction from which Third Positionism, Strasserism, National Bolshevism, The Fourth Political Theory etc develops from. It’s the type of discreet, neo-Romanticist, anti-Materialist, ironic diction that often underpins pseudo-fascist content. The emphasis on Carl Schmitt is strange too, because he was the crown jurist of the Third Reich and de facto Nazi philosopher. Even though plenty of leftist thinkers like Agamben, Zizek, and Negri have returned to Schmitt to understand his ideas, his presence can raise eyebrows.
The idea that Telos suggested (according to Wikipedia…) that the former structures of left and right, (ie, the left being anti-capitalist and the right being pro-capitalist) are no longer applicable to the contemporary post-Fordist, post-Soviet world. The reason this train of though often lapses into fascism, is because the alternative to material, economic politics is culture- and identity-based politics, the bread and butter of reactionary thinking.
However, if you read some of the titles of pieces published in Telos, you’ll see nothing that tips you off to a particular political position. Some titles in the most recent, Winter 2018 issue include “Democracy and Imperialism: The United States and Three Modes of Empire” by Timothy W. Luke, “The End of the Revolution: Mimetic Theory, Axiological Violence, and the Possibility of Dialogical Transcendence” (sounds very Thielian) by Richard Sakwa, and “Bernard Stiegler’s Theology of Writing and the Disorientation of Western Modernity” by Johann Rossouw.
These mostly sound like typical academic writing titles. I want to emphasize that I’m purposefully not calling this professor a fascist, and I don’t think he is. However, I want to show the field of study Berman is interested in, because some of this material is ripe for a neo-reactionary capitalist like Peter Thiel to fill with his ideology.
That is the introduction of my analysis of their syllabus. In the next post, I’m going to dive into the reading list and weekly class descriptions to glean information about what Peter Thiel is thinking and doing.
Once I complete the other posts, I will include links to them here. Until then, here’s another link to the syllabus.