On Peter Thiel, radical life extension, and the state

This week I was lucky enough to get a COVID vaccine. I was given it in the Science Museum, appropriately enough, about 20 metres from an exhibition showing the implements that Edward Jenner used to dispense the first ever vaccine in 1796. Nothing did more to radically extend human life expectancy in the 20th century than vaccines.

While recovering from the mild flu effects of the vaccine, I spent the day reading about perhaps the most famous advocate of radical life extension — Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel.

He’s not the richest entrepreneur in Silicon Valley (he’s worth a mere $6.5 billion) but he’s one of the more interesting ones. He is famous as a contrarian, who hires contrarian thinkers like Eric Weinstein to join his court at Thiel Capital and think alternative thoughts. He also appoints ‘Thiel Fellows’ each year, who he pays to drop out of college and think alternative thoughts.

There’s actually a character in the HBO series Silicon Valley based on him — Peter Gregory. The heroes of the comedy get him to invest in their start-up by threatening to go to college.

I first heard of Thiel when I was at Burning Man in 2018, when I met various figures associated with him, including several who believed they would never die, thanks to scientific advances. I learned how Thiel invests in ‘radical life extension’ technologies through organisations like SENS Research, which is run by the longevity scientist Aubrey de Grey.

What’s surprising is Thiel is also a Christian. He grew up an evangelical, and still calls himself a Christian. In a fascinating conversation with leading theologian NT Wright, the two discussed the relationship between transhumanism and Christianity. Thiel said: ‘The thing that strikes me is how similar they are.’

He added: ‘The one part of the Christian view that I believe more strongly than anything is that death is evil, that it’s wrong and we should not accept it and fight it any way we can.’

He thinks early science was inspired by this Christian rejection of death and points out that one of the early aims of the Royal Society was the prolongation of life.

NT Wright, of course, also believes in humans attaining immortal bodies, but he thinks it will be achieved by the second coming of Jesus, not by scientific advances. That’s the difference between Thielism and Christianity — the latter is about the surrender of the will to God while the former seems more about the triumph of the will. But then again, Christians have always been extremely fired up about ‘making the world a better place’.

In any case, Thiel says, it’s not like transhumanists will offer you a magic pill that makes you live forever. It will be more like ‘we have a cure for cancer’, ‘we have a cure for Alzheimer’s’, and in each case, of course, there is a very strong moral case for accepting those cures. So we will fall down the slippery slope to immortality.

Crazy? Well, consider this. Vaccines helped to double average human life expectancy in the 20th century. Is it so far fetched that our life expectancy could double again in the 21st century?

Thiel’s pessimism

Thiel’s faith in the possibility of immortality may make him sound like a happy-clappy tech evangelist. In fact, there’s a big streak of pessimism in his thinking. One of his most famous contrarian views, which he expounds at length to his court philosopher Eric Weinstein in this podcast, is that we’ve been in a period of technological and cultural stagnation since the 1970s.

That seems nonsensical given what’s happened with computers and the internet, but he says information technology has been the exception. If you look at any office or home or street, besides the PCs and smart-phones, the technology is more or less the same as the 1970s. Westerners travel the same, we get our energy the same, we eat the same, and medicine is pretty much the same as it was 40 years ago.

That lack of technological innovation is bad news for capitalism (US average GDP growth has stalled to around 2% per annum) and bad for democracy. He says:

In a world without technological progress you have a zero sum society in which you there has to be a loser for every winner. It’s not clear that capitalism would work in that sort of society, I certainly don’t think democratic government could work — it works by having a growing pie in which you forge compromises in which you divvy up the pie. When the pie stops growing politics gets polarized and people get really angry with each other even when there are no differences between them.

‘I would like’, he says, ‘to see a world where people think about the future more.’ And where people have more hope for the future. His Founders Fund (one of his investment vehicles) published a manifesto for the future, which has the subtitle ‘we were promised flying cars, instead we got 140 characters’.

The potential for evil

What makes Thiel different from most tech types is he is a pessimist about human nature. He thinks Christianity’s superiority to the Enlightenment lies in the fact that the former ‘recognized that humans are potentially evil or at least dangerous beings’. His vision of the world and of human nature is rooted in humans’ capacity for violence.

While he was a student at Stanford, he attended a lecture by the anthropologist Rene Girard, who wrote the books Violence and the Sacred (1972) and The Scapegoat (1982). Girard taught that humans are ‘mimetic animals’ — we copy and ‘ape’ each other, and this breeds emulation, competition and rivalry. The hyper-emulation of humans leads to increasing resentment, envy and anger, which human society has to find an outlet for. Society does this, Girard says, by focusing on a scapegoat, targeting all its rage onto this person, and through their sacrifice temporarily cleansing the society of its tensions (as Oedipus cleanses Thebes of its plague when he is punished and cast out). Girard sees Christianity as a great leap forward for humanity, because it replaced the need for periodic human sacrifices by creating Christ as a symbolic scapegoat, who we can consume every Sunday. Christ also taught us to love and forgive our enemies — breaking the ancient endless cycle of revenge and murder.

The problem is that modern western society has rejected the Christ myth, so no longer has a good catharsis for our mimetic rivalry, resentment and hate. In place of the sacred limited violence of the Passion, we have desacralized limitless violence.

Thiel is a big fan of Girard — he even funded a conference on him, and gave a paper, which you can read in this book. I think Girard made such a big impression on him partly because of what was happening at Stanford while Thiel was a student there.

Stanford was the epicentre of a wave of student radicalism from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, similar to the Black Lives Matter movement of the last few years. The university remodelled itself as a bastion of multiculturalism and diversity, ditching its western classics curriculum and introducing a new introductory course in culture and values, in which minority texts loomed large. It also invested heavily in diversity training.

Jesse Jackson leads a march of Stanford students in 1987

Thiel was not impressed by this revolution. He co-wrote a book about it in 1995 called The Diversity Myth. He and co-author David O. Sacks argue that ‘multiculturalism’ is not really about studying the best of world culture — that would be cosmopolitanism. Nor is it really about promoting diversity, at least, not intellectual diversity. Rather, it is about creating and enforcing a new dogma of victimhood and witch-hunting.

People’s identities in this new religion are defined as members of victim groups — African-Americans, women, gays (this was before the trans debate got fired up). These identities depend on oppressors and abusers — straight white men, and the West. Its founding ecstatic myth is the rejection of evil western civilization — he remembers watching a rally in 1987 (pictured above), where students chant ‘hey hey ho ho western culture gotta go’. This at the most elite university in the US.

Thiel watched as this new religion took over Stanford, how its apostles identified anyone who resisted its dogma as heretics, denouncing them and casting them out: ‘the group attack eerily recalled the scapegoating of witches in Salem or the collective catharsis achieved during George Orwell’s “Minute of Hate” in 1984.’

So you can see how Stanford in the late 80s would have got Thiel into Rene Girard’s theory of the scapegoat. People have often said of cancel culture that it’s Christianity without forgiveness.

From Stanford to Silicon Valley

Thiel seemed to enjoy being a contrarian against this hegemony — he set up a libertarian newspaper at Stanford. But he was still following a conventional career path in law. Then, in 1994, he failed to be accepted as a clerk to a Supreme Court judge. Who knows, maybe it was because he was so outspoken against political correctness. Either way, he was devastated. But this was another founding moment for him.

He went to Credit Suisse, became a derivatives trader, made lots of money in the 1990s, and used this to set up an online payments company, which would become PayPal. He is known today as the leading figure in the ‘PayPal mafia’ — several of the figures who helped set up PayPal went on to set up their own billion-dollar companies, such as Elon Musk, who set up Tesla and SpaceX, and Reid Hoffman, who set up LinkedIn.

Thiel, centre left, with other members of the ‘PayPal Mafia’ in a Forbes photoshoot inspired by the Sopranos

After eBay bought PayPal for $1.2 billion in 2002, Thiel became a tech investor. He was the first investor in Facebook in 2004, buying 10% of the company, and still sits on the board. He has said that his interest in Rene Girard helped him see the potential in social media — people love to imitate and emulate.

I wonder if there’s a paradox there — what has expanded our capacity for mimetic violence more than social media? Another paradox: Thiel destroyed the gossip website Gawker in 2016, after it outed him as a gay. He did this by funding a law suit brought against Gawker by Hulk Hogan. That lawsuit underlines Thiel’s fierce privacy — the entire website for Thiel Capital is just one page, that says Thiel. And yet this incredibly private man, this libertarian, also set up Palantir, a big data analysis company used by state security services to monitor and track citizens.

The website for Thiel Capital. That’s it. That’s the website.

His investment approach is contrarian. The normal rules of Silicon Valley are: don’t have too long-distance a plan, improve on what’s out there, and focus on the product, not sales. He rejects this and suggests:

1. It is better to risk boldness than triviality. 2. A bad plan is better than no plan. 3. Competitive markets destroy profits. 4. Sales matters just as much as product.

He thinks competition is often a form of pointless rivalry and violence — Girard’s mimetic apes, again. He gives the example of Microsoft and Google, who became so obsessed with competing with each other in the Noughties, they left the field open for Apple to innovate and outstrip them both. A truly exciting new company doesn’t compete with other companies, it creates something so new that it becomes a natural monopoly, like Google, or Facebook, or SpaceX. There is something holy and even god-like in ‘founders’, he thinks — they create ex nihilo, they take the world from Zero to One.

Pessimism about democracy

Unfortunately, not enough new stuff is being created, and this makes Thiel pessimistic about democracy — the pie isn’t getting bigger and the rage is rising. He supported Trump in the 2016 election, donating $1.5 million to the campaign and speaking at the Republican Convention. He hoped Trump would shake up American bureaucracy and the PC liberal consensus, and help America dream big again. Backing Trump apparently cost him friends in San Francisco and may have inspired his departure for Los Angeles.

In fact, Thiel may be preparing for the nation-state to fail. His favourite book is a 1997 work by James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg, called The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age. He wrote the preface for a new edition of it.

The authors argue that the key to understanding history is violence, and the organisation of violence. Nation-states emerged as monopolies on violence, and they used that monopoly to take money from citizens and use it to fund themselves, mainly for wars. In the information age, however, the wealthy can use digital currency to avoid state violence (ie taxation). Think of PayPal or cryptocurrencies like Ethereum (another of Thiel’s investments).

The Sovereign Individual is an extremely libertarian and elitist book. The authors follow Pareto’s law, that almost all wealth and innovation come from 20% of society — what Pareto called ‘the vital few’. There is a ‘cognitive elite’ who are far smarter and far richer than everyone else. They will be the winners in the new Information Age. They write:

The Sovereign Individuals of the Information Age, like the gods of ancient and primitive myths, will in due course enjoy a kind of “diplomatic immunity” from most of the political woes that have beset mortal human beings in most times and places.

Anyone who earns less than $200,000 a year ($330,000 in today’s money) is a ‘loser’, and they will suffer. Nation-states are destined to fail — their currencies will become more and more inflated, while the cognitive elite leave them behind and go and live in tax shelters, or start up their own mini-countries run like corporations. This is all to the good, say the authors. However, it will also mean a decline in states’ monopoly on violence, and we will be back in a Hobbesian world of all against all. So the cognitive elite should invest heavily in private security.

Lord William Rees-Mogg — right at the heart of the British establishment, a man who clearly despised the British nation-state

What a dark and amoral vision of the world! How could such an establishment figure as William Rees-Mogg, editor of the Times, chairman of the Arts Council, vice-chairman of the BBC, a baron in the House of Lords, father of the present Leader of the House of Commons, have so much contempt for Britain and the British?

Alas, it seems Thiel shares his ‘every man for himself’ libertarian vision:

One may define a ‘liberal’ as someone who knows nothing of the past and of this history of violence, and still holds to the Enlightenment view of the natural goodness of humanity. And one may define a ‘conservative’ as someone who knows nothing of the future and of the global world that is destined to be, and therefore still believes that the nation-state or other institutions rooted in sacred violence can contain unlimited human violence.

Given this vision of war in the streets, Thiel has obviously spent time planning how to escape. One of his ventures is the Seasteading Institute, which thinks about how to build libertarian cities at sea. He also funds SpaceX, in which Elon Musk imagines sending a million people to Mars (initially, only those who can afford the $500,000 ticket price). And apparently, he has bought land in New Zealand, and has a Kiwi passport, as an exit strategy if civilization collapses. I wonder if Thiel was the unnamed investor who hired Douglas Rushkoff to advise him on what to do in the event of ‘The Event’ — ie the collapse of civilization. What if your private security turns on you?

For some, these views have turned Thiel into ‘a figure of almost cartoonishly outsized villainy’, in the words of Mark O’Connell, who rants against Thiel in his book Notes from An Apocalypse. And his contrarianism can take him into some dark places. Last year, it emerged that Thiel had dinner (in 2016) with Kevin DeAnna, a white supremacist who founded Youth for Western Civilization, who has written: ‘It’s time to fight for a country of our own. It’s time to stop being Americans. It’s time to start being White Men again.’

You can see how Thiel and DeAnna would find common ground — both oppose what they see as an anti-western religion of diversity and multiculturalism on campuses. The authors of The Sovereign Individual also warned about ‘urban ethnic minorities’ who would use the state to try and wrest money from the cognitive elite for welfare policies.

It’s interesting reading about Thiel’s vision of the future — so hopeful in some ways, so dark in others — particularly this year.

I’m back in the UK now, and I do feel this is clearly a stagnating economy and culture, which in the absence of anything else has more or less completely embraced ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’ as its sacred dogma, with an endless cycle of scapegoating and ecstatic purging. Our politics have become ever more outraged, to distract ourselves — as Adam Curtis suggests — from the fact that nothing is actually changing.

And yet, this week, I got a vaccine. The world managed to create several COVID vaccines within weeks. Thiel himself got excited by this, wondering if the reaction to COVID marked the end of the long stagnation and the beginning of the 21st century, with leaps forward in biotech, energy and transportation. He has said:

one should think of Covid and the crisis of this year as this giant watershed moment, where this is the first year of the 21st century. This is the year in which the new economy is actually replacing the old economy.

Would this extraordinary innovation have been possible without the nation-state and government money? We funded it. Who funded SpaceX? We did. It wouldn’t have survived without government support.

I suppose if I had one question I’d ask Thiel it would be: how much money do the elite really need? Is life quantifiably better now he has $6 billion than it was five years ago, when he was worth a mere $2 billion? Isn’t the nation-state and the post-war system of world trade the best invention humans have come up with for the radical extension of human life? Do you really want to retreat to your island…how is that a Christian thing to do?

Author of Philosophy for Life and other books. Honorary fellow, Centre for the History of the Emotions. www.philosophyforlife.org.

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