14.7 C
London
Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Contrarian review – inside the strange world of PayPal founder Peter Thiel

- Advertisement -
- Advertisement -

This is a book about the aphrodisiac effect of wealth and in particular about the reality distortion field that surrounds people who possess it. Peter Thiel is such a person and the strength of the field that surrounds him is so intense that it is difficult to believe anything that anyone writes about him.

So you approach journalist Max Chafkin’s book with a degree of scepticism. Has he succeeded in penetrating the hype of the “Thielverse” and drilled down to the heart of the riddle wrapped around an enigma that is Thiel? The answer is: perhaps. And if he has succeeded, then the conclusion is that Thiel is nothing like as interesting as the media (and the political world) seem to think. He’s just a very rich and very strange human being.

He was born in 1967 in Frankfurt to pious Christian parents and came to the US as a one-year-old. His father was a mining expert and took the family to apartheid South Africa for a few years before returning to the US and settling in California. At school, Thiel was a classic nerd and a formidable chess player (one of the best under-13 chess players in the US, apparently). But even then he was perceived as “inscrutable, distant and haughty”. Fifty years on, he’s much the same.

Thiel then went to Stanford, which he hated. What particularly infuriated him was the university’s supposedly liberal, politically correct ethos and it led him to found the Stanford Review, a scabrously neo-reactionary little journal designed to troll liberals and their detested values. In it, one finds the seeds of Thiel’s victim mentality, not at that stage as a gay man (that came later) but as a white, conservative, non-PC male.

Despite that, though, he stayed on at Stanford’s law school before leaving to embark on what looked like a standard legal career. While labouring in that arid wasteland, he co-authored a book, The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and Political Intolerance on Campus, which brought him to the attention of the most poisonous segments of American conservatism and in a way launched him on the contrarian track that has since defined his life.

Abandoning his legal career, he tried to use his growing political notoriety to set up a hedge fund. It didn’t work. But then he ran into Max Levchin, who had an idea for software that would enable personal computers to communicate with banks’ mainframe systems. The idea was to use digital IOUs instead of dollars to buy stuff.

It was the idea that launched PayPal, which grew rapidly because eBay users liked it, and was the start of Thiel’s rise to billionaire-hood, even though it lost money hand over fist and was rescued from insolvency by a “merger” with a similar outfit founded by Elon Musk. The company’s early employees and investors became what the media came to call “the PayPal mafia” because they have parlayed their windfall profits into a number of other successful tech companies (with Thiel taking a cut nearly every time). They have also provided their hero with a cadre of devoted followers who have helpfully burnished his myth as he climbed the greasy pole to his current obscene wealth.

Chafkin is a terrific journalist and he has provided a detailed, impeccably researched account of this journey. In a way, The Contrarian is a chronicle of the evolution of a weird personality cult: the Thielverse, whose members, overwhelmingly, young, rightwing single males, worship their hero as someone gifted with godlike prescience and wisdom.

The strange thing is that the record doesn’t really support this hagiographical vision. Thiel isn’t a gifted geek, just someone who is good at spotting an opportunity. His investment record is patchy, although it shows that he has always been good at getting out before the peak. And although he masquerades as a visionary who derides liberal democracy as too slow and stupid to survive, in practice he has devoted much of his career to building businesses that feed off its governments. In that sense, his actual legacy is Palantir, a supposedly omnipotent and omniscient corporation that can do magic with data analytics; in fact, it is a humdrum government contractor like the rest of the aerospace and global consultancy firms. Think of it as Accenture with added halitosis.

The most interesting thought that emerges from Chafkin’s book is that Thiel isn’t really a visionary at all. That’s because he’s defined only by what he’s against – liberal democracy, liberal elites, multiculturalism, and so on. But if you ask what is he for then only one answer can be extracted from this book: he’s for Peter Thiel.

- Advertisement -
Latest news

Sunday with Derren Brown: ‘I vacuum the taxidermy on a biweekly basis’

Who wakes you up? We’ve got two dogs – a Beagle Basset called Doodle and a Tibetan Terrier called Humbug – who start yipping...
- Advertisement -

Orange adds a juicy new look to autumn

Orange makeup is a great way to inject freshness into your countenance. If, however, you find it daunting, then consider the various hues and...

Current approach to wildfires risks lives and wastes money, say experts

A new approach is urgently needed to tackle global wildfires as current methods are no longer working, draining the public purse and placing lives...

‘It still gives me nightmares’: the firefighters on the frontline as the world burns

Babis ZacharisHellenic fire service volunteer, AthensIn Greece, fires take up a lot of resources. There isn’t enough money to recruit the number of ...
Related news

Sunday with Derren Brown: ‘I vacuum the taxidermy on a biweekly basis’

Who wakes you up? We’ve got two dogs – a Beagle Basset called Doodle and a Tibetan Terrier called Humbug – who start yipping...

Orange adds a juicy new look to autumn

Orange makeup is a great way to inject freshness into your countenance. If, however, you find it daunting, then consider the various hues and...

Current approach to wildfires risks lives and wastes money, say experts

A new approach is urgently needed to tackle global wildfires as current methods are no longer working, draining the public purse and placing lives...

‘It still gives me nightmares’: the firefighters on the frontline as the world burns

Babis ZacharisHellenic fire service volunteer, AthensIn Greece, fires take up a lot of resources. There isn’t enough money to recruit the number of ...
- Advertisement -

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here