Review – Thiel, “Zero to One”

I tried to get Dall-E to make the Angel of death greeting Peter Thiel, but this was the best it could do

Peter Thiel, “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future” (2014) – This is the last book I read of a series of seven unconventional right-wing books, books that in some sense were off the beaten path of conservatism, but reflected or were influential or parallel in some way… or anyway, a projected series. There doesn’t seem to be a good English translation of alleged Chinese state authoritarianism apologist Wang Huning out there, and the Unabomber Manifesto is really more of a pamphlet than a book, no more within my ambit of reviews than any single article.

I say all that to say this: Peter Thiel is probably the slimiest motherfucker out of those seven with which I started, which include a slavery apologist in the person of Thaddeus Russell and an actual murderer in the person of Ted Kaczynski. The depths to which Thiel would sink to accomplish his ends reach far below what a middling scribbler like Russell could manage, and his capacity for destruction is much more real than anything Kaczynski could have dreamt. And yet, I was probably the most on board with Thiel as I was with any of the writers I read in this series… for the first, maybe, quarter of “Zero to One,” his business manifesto, assembled out of notes his catamite and potential Arizona Senator Blake Masters took when Masters sat Thiel’s tech business class at Stanford. 

At this point, contrarianism-posturers – and there is arguably no bigger or more historically important claimant to the throne of contrarian-philosopher than Peter Thiel – have to overcome reflexive skepticism from anyone who has noticed how contrived their postures and goofy their claims often are. But Thiel did manage some actually good and, in some ways, genuinely contrarian, in a good way, points, early in the book. The big one is that competition is not the boon to innovation that people think it is. Market competition does not lead to the best products- it leads to the products that can beat others at market, which is not the same thing. “He overstates his case,” I thought, reading it, “I know a lot of nerds and that’s just how they talk,” I reasoned, going over his pro-monopoly arguments. Monopolies can focus on their task, not on competition, and therefore prevent themselves from either pursuing illusory goals or simply competing away their whole profit margin. “If he could get that profit in and of itself is in large part the problem, we’d really be getting somewhere!” I figured. 

ANNH! Buzzer noise, around a third or a quarter of the way in. It turns out that market competition is a bad way of assigning value not because of the warping effects of profit-taking, but because it involves the preferences of everybody, i.e., the stupid little people who don’t care enough about space travel and life extension technology. What you need are small, dedicated, elite bodies – like the founding core of a tech startup, Thiel tells us – willing to flout rules and conventions, truly “think different” (about things like “the diversity myth,” the title of another Thiel book, or obeying safety regulations), and achieve monopoly power. Only such people can get us out of our current demoralizing state, with ever-improving gadgetry and entertainment options, but basic needs failing to be met… that is, the basic needs of Peter Thiel. Peter Thiel needs space travel, because he’s a nerd, and he needs life extension, because he’s one of those chickenshit, profoundly hard to respect nerds who are terrified of natural death. What’s the matter, Pete? Death will eliminate the source of all your problems, the irritation you can’t be rid of despite your billions of dollars- it will eliminate you. Once it takes that turn, the book is useless, except as a guide to the thought of a man our society, in its wisdom, has imbued with absurd amounts of power and money. As far as I’m concerned, the closer the day he meets that big fear of his, the better. It certainly won’t leave the written word any poorer. *’

Review – Thiel, “Zero to One”

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