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17 January 2024

John Gray and Peter Thiel: Life in a postmodern world

A conversation between the philosopher and the venture capitalist.

By John Gray


Peter Thiel, who had a nomadic childhood as the son of German parents who eventually settled in America, co-founded PayPal, the online payments company, in 1998 at the age of 31. He ran the company, working alongside Elon Musk, until its sale to Ebay in 2002 for $1.5bn. He has since become one of the world’s richest venture capitalists, having been a founding investor in Facebook and SpaceX. He also chairs Palantir, the data-mining company that has ongoing contracts with the British state.

Thiel spoke at the 2016 Republican convention in support of Donald Trump, on whose presidential transition team he served and to whom he donated $1.25m. He has disavowed doing so again.

In October he gave the Roger Scruton memorial lecture in Oxford and spoke with the philosopher and “New Statesman” contributing writer John Gray afterwards. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. They address the question of science – what it is, when it works, how it has been held back – and the delusions of our current cultural moment.

John Gray: Let’s begin to explore these very deep questions and profound thoughts that have been put before us by Peter. I think we should recognize that they are all attempts to shake us out of our distraction. There are three types of distraction here. The first is the way in which cultural debates about woke and anti-woke very often lead us to turn our thoughts away from fundamental contradictions in economic life. And this is a way in which Peter’s way of thinking has combined certain aspects of libertarian and Marxist critiques of our current economic regime.

The second is that the paradigmatic contrast which is supposed to exist – between ethics and politics as not being progressive and science and technology as being prototypically progressive – is not in fact substantiated by the evidence; that science and technology, except in a few narrow fields, have been stuck in the same categories of thinking, the same theoretical frameworks, and even the same types of technology for about 50 years.

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And then the third type of distraction concerns how questions of religion, of how we ultimately think about good and evil, have been pushed to one side by wokeness, which is not at all, as some people have said on the right, a re-paganisation of the world but a type of hyper-Christianity emptied of transcendence and forgiveness.

And that leads to my question to you, Peter: is there some way out of this? One of the things you said tonight was that 20th-century movements like fascism, or writers like Ayn Rand, or thinkers like Bronze Age Pervert today, in attempting to get back to a classical or pre-Christian view of the world – in which energy and vitality and power are what matters and victimhood is contemptible – cannot succeed in a post-revelation world.

In the same way, we can’t go back to earlier forms of science, we can’t go back to earlier forms of economic thinking, although I thought what you said about Henry George was very interesting. Are we really stuck? Is it possible to unstick us?

Peter Thiel: Well, my facile answer is always the first thing you have to do to solve problems is to talk about them. So I think that as long as we have this, as you described, Groundhog Day of wokeness, we are not going to be unstuck and we’re going to be in this zero-sum, Malthusian, ever nastier political context. I think there are ways that we could unstick ourselves in all three dimensions.

Neither pure capitalism nor pure globalism work economically. To unshackle ourselves economically, one should start by attacking the extraordinarily distorted real estate market. It’s very hard because you would destroy trillions of dollars in value in doing it, but the distortions have to give way at some point. Maybe it’s a technological fix. The way the problems that Henry George identified with real estate were historically solved was by having an open frontier in America, powered in the 19th century by the railroads. Then the frontier was populated and closed. And then late 19th, early 20th century, the cities start to have this Georgist runaway real estate price effect, rising inequality, and you get progressivism as a response. And then in the 20th century, in a way, another frontier was opened with the automobile and the highways and the suburbs, and that relieved the pressure on the runaway costs. But now that technology has run its course.

Is there some way to reopen a frontier in real estate? The possibility where I think the jury is very out, though it doesn’t look that promising in 2023, would be remote work. Could the internet be a way that people are not stuck in these cities? And that would reset all these real estate values tremendously because even in a rather densely populated country like England, there is plenty of space if you’re not forced to be within the green belt of London itself. And in the United States even more so.

Or to address science and technology, one must ask why the progress slowed. My optimistic belief is that it was not that we just ran out of ideas. It’s that there were these deformations of culture. We became too risk-averse, too bureaucratic, too reliant on peer review in the sciences. And I think we could be making a lot more progress in a lot of areas. We don’t want to minimize or trivialize people’s fears of technology, but I think you could have a very different balance there.

And then certainly the questions about the larger meaning of life or the meaning of history are ones that I think we’d all do well to confront more.

JG: What you’ve said implies, and I agree, that the so-called consensus that prevails between Sunak and Starmer is far more a consensus on what we’re not supposed to think about than it is on anything positive. Because the big problems you’ve mentioned, the problems of stagnation in science, the problems of real estate in London and Oxford and throughout the country, the problems of generational inequity in which young people can’t find any way to live; they’re all hardly addressed at all. There’s a bit of commentary in the newspapers and so on, but in terms of thinking about active solutions, there perhaps may be some dim subliminal awareness among these politicians that solving them would involve big losses for somebody.

PT: Yes, or certainly big losses for them in the election. And so, yeah, and it’s certainly not limited to the UK, but certainly an outside perspective I would have, it seems to me that there’s a secret agreement between Sunak and Starmer to talk as much as possible about culture wars. And then if you have even basic economic questions like how to solve runaway deficit spending – with higher taxes or lower entitlements? – they both have a look-ahead function where if we talk about that, we’ll lose 10 or 15 percent of the voters. Maybe not quite as many for Sunak; at some point it’s hard to lose 10 or 15 percent of the voters. But when everybody does that, when all the solutions are outside the Overton window, we’re confined in this very narrow box and the Groundhog Day will continue until at some point something really breaks.

JG: So there won’t be a Nietzschean Groundhog Day, it won’t really be eternal. It’s going to break down, isn’t it? I mean, that’s one way or the other, even if only for economic reasons, but we don’t know when or how.

PT: Sure. I think there certainly are all kinds of dimensions one could point to where it is simply not stable. The demographics are not stable. The deficits are not stable. We had pseudo-stability and deficits for 40 years in the United States and much of the Western world where the deficits were too big, but the interest rates went steadily down. Something around that seems to have broken in the last year or two. So I think even something as basic as deficits financed at zero percent interest rates, it seemed like the 2010s could go on forever and that seems over.

JG: And they haven’t. Does that bleed back into the cultural and the religious questions you discussed? Part of the resistance to your analysis of science is a kind of quasi-religious conception of the salvific possibilities of science. Science can do what religion hasn’t done, which is to actually change worldly life in a way which rids it of its deepest contradictions. And for some people, if they gave up that faith in science, they would be left with nihilism, or left with despair, or left with unbearable anxiety.

PT: Yeah, although there’s a very complicated history of science. In some ways it was a by-product of Christianity, in some ways it was in opposition to Christianity. And certainly in its healthy, ambitious, early modern forms, whether it was a substitute or a complement to Christianity, it was supposed to be a vehicle for comparable transformation. The indefinite prolongation of human life was an early modern science project in which people still believed in the 17th and 18th centuries. There was a sub-movement within the revolutionary Soviet politics in the 1920s called Cosmism, where a part of the project of the revolution had to be to physically resurrect all dead human beings, because if science didn’t do that it would be inferior to Christianity.

JG: To adapt themselves to the Soviet and Bolshevik reality, one of the Cosmists’ slogans was, “Dead of the world, unite!”

PT: So there is this anti-Christian or derivative from Christianity, very ambitious version of science. And of course, there is also a more defeatist version of science, where science actually tells us about limits and things you cannot do. To use a literary example, when Hamlet’s evil mother, Gertrude, says that all that lives must die, the question one must ask is, is that a law of nature? Or is this just a rationalization for the rottenness that is Denmark? And certainly the early modern conception was that you wanted to transcend this, both in a Christian or a scientific form. By late modernity, as science decayed, that sort of ambition is only on the fringes of science, not the mainstream.

JG: There’s also a nihilistic version of science, a Brave New World version, which sees itself as pacifying the spiritual and mental anguish and doubts of human beings by giving them access to drugs and pornography and all kinds of things which distract them forever from these fundamental existential questions, the religious questions. I mean what would work to exterminate religion or exterminate the need for religion would be to put everyone to sleep with drug dreams, drug highs. And of course, drugs are a tremendous feature of life at the moment, aren’t they, in many countries?

PT: I wouldn’t even go that far. Even iPhones distract you from the fact you’re in a hundred-year-old subway in London or New York, or the fact the environment hasn’t changed. I wouldn’t say there’s a fully intentional conspiracy, but the particular, narrow forms of technological progress that we’ve had in the last 50 years have made us oblivious to these things.

One particular example of science’s slide from early modern ambition into late modern torpor is the climate change debate. If one took climate change seriously, there are all kinds of progressive science things one could do. You could be pushing for the construction of hundreds of new nuclear reactors. You could be pushing for nuclear fusion. But in practice, we don’t lean into that. We’re instead told that we should ride bicycles. So much of science today has this Luddite feeling.

JG: Or start eating insects rather than beef. The thought that the function of smartphones is to distract us from the fact that we’re still living in a Victorian environment, with Victorian sewers and Victorian subways and Victorian buildings, is very profound, because it suggests that one of the functions of technology is to supplant the material world so that we live in a virtual world more and more of the time. Of course, this virtual world has physical roots, so if something goes wrong with the physical roots, if there is war, terrorism, or climate change, then it’s all disrupted. But that’s part of the way it works, isn’t it?

PT: Well, certainly, the virtual world is the part of technology that has progressed the most. I keep thinking that you could do a lot more in these other areas. If I, again, come back to real estate, this seems the furthest from technological innovation. Admittedly, there are new building designs, you can build 100-story buildings that you could not build 20, 30 years ago. But if too much of the economy is anchored on things that are hard to improve or change, progress slows. So if the economy in the UK, and I’ll make these numbers up, is 50% real estate and 10% computers, then even if the 10% that is computers is somehow getting better and better, if 50% that is real estate is very stuck, that is going to be at best a slowly improving economy. If the most important thing isn’t changing, that creates all kinds of weird side effects and incentives.

JG: So the hyper-progressivism, the hyper-accelerationism that we are told that we have, by politicians and others, by Blair, for example…

PT: It does not show up in the per capita GDP numbers, it does not show up in incomes rising faster than rents. I just think the rebuttal is simply on the real estate side. And then we are told that people don’t want to live in houses anymore, they don’t want to have families, they’re super conscientious, they’d rather eat insects and not have children. At some point, it’s a parody of progressivism.

JG: There was a meeting in London of some of Blair’s disciples in many parties, including the Conservative Party, in which, for him, after the world mistakenly retreated from globalisation, the next phase of acceleration was technology. For Blair, to cope with the fact that we aren’t getting as much acceleration from globalisation, we’ll have to accelerate the technological side, namely AI and the virtual world. If you ask Blair, we can solve our medical care problems with AI.

PT: My sense is that Blair occupies this very strange past. It obviously does not work. We obviously cannot go back to the sort of globalisation that he represented, but nobody ever articulates this. Contrast this with, say, Thatcherism, where everybody knows, even though I was in some ways very sympathetic to Liz Truss, that more Thatcherism cannot work. The British left, though, is in this strange in-between zone where they have not moved on from globalisation but they aren’t running Blair for Prime Minister.

JG: Officially.

PT: Well, if he ran officially, one suspects it would work very badly. But then if you’re someone like Starmer, which Labour leader do you want to emulate? Attlee? That doesn’t work. So maybe Blair is the default option on offer, though nobody articulates this, which tells you that it isn’t a very good option.

JG: Absolutely. The difference is that this Truss wing of the Conservative Party wants to go back to Thatcher because they see that as a radical moment and they want to repeat the radical moments. But radical moments are very hard to keep repeating.

PT: They’re hard to repeat by doing the same thing. It was a one-time move to deregulate and lower taxes and then it’s not clear that doing it the second time does much good. You know, McKinsey was a real thing in 1985 in the United States. If you hired a consultant they actually helped you improve your company, because the companies were badly run. At this point McKinsey is a total racket, it’s just all fake. The Reagan and Thatcher administrations empowered McKinsey because they allowed more companies to be acquired, more M&A activity to happen. It was a somewhat brutal but very powerful reorganization of society that was possible and in fact the right thing to do in the 1980s. At this point, McKinsey is not ever going to be anything other than a super corrupt, fake racket in 2023.

JG: It’s fascinating the way in which the product of these revolutionary changes in the economy and society and thinking produces a proliferation of rackets, in science too. And I guess that’s connected with fakery. Fakery, that’s to say so many of the phenomena around us are fakery.

PT: I don’t know if it had to happen that way, but one of my colleagues says that institutions have embedded growth obligations, EGOs, in short. A healthy institution has exponential growth. A healthy, exponentially growing company, for example, creates more jobs and everybody can get promoted. Other institutions have their equivalents. And then at some point, the growth stops, and you have a choice. You can become more honest and say, well, you know, the university isn’t growing anymore. There’ll be very few faculty slots available. If you’re in a PhD program, we’re gonna make sure that 80% of the students drop out of the program within six months so they don’t waste their time. Or, the thing that I think unfortunately happens a great deal, is you just lie and the and the institutions become sociopathic. They pretend that the growth is still going on and then it’s only years and years later that people figure out that there are no jobs.

To tie it back to wokeness, wokeness is designed to distract from and cope with this structural reality. Say you have 10 graduate students in a chemistry program and there’s a job for only one of them at the end. You’re engaged in a Malthusian struggle, fistfights over beakers and Bunsen burners. Then somebody says something slightly racist or slightly inappropriate. What a relief – you can throw that one person off the overcrowded bus! That kind of phenomenon is perfectly natural, and could be avoided with more growth.

JG: Indeed, because what you just said is that the solution to non-growth is persecution. You can eliminate various people from the competition by cancelling them, pushing them out. They’re not there anymore. They’re what was termed in the first constitution of the Soviet Union, back I think in 1918-1919, “former persons”. So if you make these people former persons, at least they’re not competitors anymore, they’re out. This person, it has a function, it has a role, even an economic or a career structure role.

PT: It’s always important to understand the persecution is not as ideological as it’s dressed up to be. In an American academic context, when I wrote the Diversity Myth book back in the 90s, I believed that academia discriminated against conservatives and libertarians like myself. And I think that was true for one cohort of baby boomer academics who got PhDs in the 70s and couldn’t get tenure in the 80s. But by my generation, who received PhDs in the 1990s, it was obvious there was no job because I was conservative. And so the conservatives were actually not discriminated against: it was the Gen X and millennial liberals that were discriminated against, because they all had the delusion that as long as I say the correct party line, I’m safe.

That was of course also the delusion that the the party line communists had when they were disproportionately targeted by the Stalin show trials in the 1930s. Section 58 of the Soviet Penal Code punished you for counter-revolutionary activity. The key to understanding that was that everybody was guilty. There were just some people who were not being prosecuted for the time being. And so, in this world of extreme scarcity, you know, eventually everybody gets somehow deplatformed or ejected.

JG: The Soviet analogies are very rich. There was another Soviet term: telling lies that no one believes in. And that was seen as an essential thing, because if you’re surrounded by lies and every single person, including the people who tell them know that they’re lies, then it unhinges you to some extent and it makes you scared, because the party line changes inexplicably all the time. In a way, we’ve progressed beyond the Soviets, because we’ve got to the point where no one really knows what the party line is, but everyone’s terrified from deviating from it. It’s the postmodern version of the party line.

PT: We’re in this strange postmodern world. I think people are generally quite cynical. They pretty heavily discount the lies they’re being told. But nevertheless, it has this effect where somehow we can’t focus on the really important things. And so it is like this hypnotic magic trick. And the important thing is not what the magician is doing, but what the magician is distracting us from.

JG: And maybe even the magician is taken in by the sleight of hand. Maybe it’s easier to live with oneself as a magician, a political magician, a technological magician, if you really think there’s something in it, although you can never quite see what it is, because the trick is almost bigger than you.

PT: There’s a whole division among magicians between the class that claim that it’s real and the class that claim that it’s fake. So yes, that is, I believe, the sociology of magicians.

JG: How far does social science fit into this? There was a wonderful book from the 1970s by a Polish sociologist I knew, Stanislav Andreski. It was a marvellous book in every way, but the very best part of it was that it was called Social Sciences as Sorcery. And he was arguing not that there’s no social science or that there can’t be, he thought that there was and there could be more of it, but that much of it was just the kind of magical transposition of terms, forms of distraction from real problems that you’re talking about. It was theorized and systematized distractions. So if you talk about identity struggles, you’re avoiding very profound structural inequalities: economic and technological. He took the example of plagues, even of syphilis, in which people talked about power structures in all sorts of complex ways. But the basic thing is the thing itself. It’s a way of avoiding contact with the material world, isn’t it?

PT: That feels slightly too strong since I gave a sort of social science speech today, an attempt to analyse these things in terms of history, politics, sociology, psychology of our societies. These soft fields are, in theory, extremely important and also extremely prone to politicization. Any field that has the term “science” in it should always be suspicious because it’s exaggerating. Social science, political science, climate science, even computer science. It started as “computer science” because it had a very serious inferiority complex to math and electrical engineering.

JG: And though it’s often forgotten, both of the great terrible movements of the 20th century, communism and Nazism actually, called themselves science. Nazism, which is often seen as anti-scientific, was often defended in the 30s and 20s and then 40s by biological or racial science, just as communism declared dialectical materialism, DIAMAT as it was called then, as the greatest science that had ever been. So these repressive movements, murderous movements, movements which killed millions of people but also killed off thought wherever they could, thought it very important to call themselves science.

PT: One “philosophy of science” argument that I like is that science is supposed to fight a two-front war against excessive dogmatism and excessive scepticism. And so excessive dogmatism is like, say, the decayed Aristotelianism of the medieval church, and that was what science was in some ways fighting in the 17th and 18th centuries. And then excessive scepticism, if I can’t trust my senses and I don’t know whether I’m sitting in front of you, if you’re too sceptical, you also can’t do science. This two-front war is in tension, it’s actually hard to get that balance. The early moderns were more anti-dogmatism than anti-scepticism. If we fast forward to 2023, there are all kinds of things where the scientific establishment would caution us against being too sceptical. We’re not supposed to be vaccine sceptics, we’re not supposed to be climate science sceptics. It’s fighting scepticism in all its forms. I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a single instance where a scientist would say, “this is an area where science is too dogmatic today in 2023”. Surely that tells us that somehow science has degenerated into something that’s more dogmatic than the medieval church. If you’re just fighting scepticism it tells you you’re dogmatic. The totalitarian “science” of the early 20th century was like this. It pretended to be anti-dogmatism, anti-supernatural, anti-that sort of stuff. But in reality, the anti-scepticism dominated.

JG: Which leads us to a situation with the near impossibility of empiricism, in the sense of a way of thinking which tries to connect with facts in the world. So if you say, racism in certain contexts is less prevalent than these claims which have been made, someone will say, you think that because you’re a racist. You’re neglecting the systematic structural hidden subterranean patterns, the occult patterns of racism. This strikes me as a feature of liberal thought in even in its attempt to prescribe solutions. If a liberal experiment doesn’t work, say liberal experiments in drug legalization or drug decriminalization, the solution is not to say they’ve been falsified, it’s to say do it three or four times and then it will work. So can we get back to something closer to empiricism, in which someone will accept that we are too dogmatic about x, y, z? That maybe we don’t know the answer, maybe we’ve actually got to go out and check things to see what’s happening?

PT: Well, you know, there’s empirical thinking, there’s analytical thinking. I would like us just to get back to thinking.

JG: The hardest of all.

PT: We just have to do that.

[See also: Get ready for the worst]

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