Tech Billionaires Are Reshaping US Politics
Paris Marx is joined by Jacob Silverman to discuss Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover, the politics of the PayPal Mafia tech billionaires, and how they’re trying to reshape US political discourse to serve themselves.
Jacob Silverman is a journalist who writes for The New Republic, The Baffler, Slate, and many others. He’s also the co-author of Easy Money: Cryptocurrency, Casino Capitalism, and the Golden Age of Fraud with Ben McKenzie. Follow Jacob on Twitter at @SilvermanJacob.
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- Jacob wrote about Musk’s Twitter acquisition for The Baffler and the politics of David Sacks and these other tech billionaires for The New Republic.
- Paris wrote about Musk’s Twitter acquisition for NBC News and Marc Andreessen’s housing politics for Business Insider.
- The Delaware court case revealed text messages between Elon Musk and all the people trying to gain his favor.
- Saudi Arabia had an intelligence operation running through Twitter, which led some former employees to be charged with spying. Saudi Arabia has imprisoned people over their tweets.
- There were accusations that Twitter had an Indian official associated with the far-right Modi government on payroll.
- Banks are expecting to suffer major losses on the loans provided to Musk to acquire Twitter.
- The LA Times reported that Twitter bots helped build the cult of Musk.
- In 2016, Thiel and Sacks’ Diversity Myth comments were resurrected and Thiel has to issue a statement.
Paris Marx: Jacob, welcome back to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Jacob Silverman: Glad to be here. Thank you.
PM: We’re not talking about crypto this time, which is shocking. Maybe it will come up in our conversation!
JS: There’s always an angle.
PM: Exactly! There’s always something to relate back to it, and who knows, maybe it will come up. But we’re talking about something a little bit different than we usually talk about when you’re on the show. But then again, it’s very related because we talk about the right wing politics of crypto before when you’ve been on and I think this is, to some degree, an extension of that, when we’re talking about the politics of a lot of these tech billionaires, what they’re up to. You wrote this really great piece in The Baffler recently about Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, something that we have been following for the past six months. As we record today, Thursday, October 27, yesterday Elon Musk walked into Twitter headquarters with a sink. Today he tweeted about his plans for advertisers, and the rumor is tomorrow, it’s going to close. But I don’t want to say for sure until that actually happens because of how many times this has been delayed. But what have you made of this whole saga — everything that has happened over this past six months?
JS: Well as with everything Elon Musk, it’s kind of silly and histrionic and centered around him and a little dumb at times. He can’t just acquire a company in a normal way; it has to be this public event with a lot of financial engineering behind it too. Because as most folks know, he’s highly leveraged; a lot of his money’s tied up in Tesla. His meeting with bankers the other day, where he supposedly told them: Hey, this is going to be done by the end of the week, he was talking to people who were putting $13 billion and so there is a lot of outside financing here. I think that’s what might — I was going to say — keep him in check in some ways, but that’s not even really it. You don’t want to paint the financiers as sort of authorities or heroes in any way. But it may keep him, perhaps, from immediately blowing up the company, I think. There is a lot of valid concern about where Twitter goes from here. One angle I’ve been trying to take up to this point is to say that it’s not necessarily Musk is right, but Twitter does have a lot of problems, including bots even. But I don’t think he’s certainly the proper one to diagnose this stuff. And I think we’ve sometimes been distracted by Musk’s apparent concerns about Twitter, and not necessarily what some of the general ongoing issues are that were there before Musk and that will still be there.
PM: You discuss this really well in your piece — discussing the Saudi intelligence operation that was going on inside Twitter, the lack of offices and content moderators and things like that that Twitter has, especially outside the English language in markets where it’s used very heavily. But there isn’t even nearly the degree of moderation that happens in English, which I think we already can recognize is often not good enough. And then when we look at what Elon Musk is proposing and his focus, he talks a lot about free speech, so to speak. I think it’s kind of up in the air as to what he really means by free speech, but he doesn’t really seem to be clued into the real problems that the service has, but is rather motivated by particular things that he obsesses about, and that the kind of people who he is associated with obsess about when it comes to the service**
JS: Very much so. I think he seems to be at least a little bit of a low attention span is kind of easily distracted or motivated by something that one of his friends tells them or even a tweet he encounters online. I thought the texts that were disclosed in the Delaware court were pretty interesting, and probably points to one reason why he wanted to wrap this thing up rather quickly after those came out, just because there could be worse to come. I can’t really speak definitively, but I spoke to one person who appears in those texts, and they said: Well, there are other texts for me that weren’t there. So I’m not going to sound conspiracy, but it’s a partial picture into who he is and how he communicates with people, but I actually thought it was quite revealing. And he has all these hangers on and buddies around him who are kind of versions of him but far less wealthy. And they’re making a lot of suggestions that one might expect and one might see already on Twitter. There is going to be some kind of regime governing speech on Twitter. The question is: what’s that going to look like? I don’t really know yet. But they do talk about like deplatforming political enemies in some sort of conversation with an anonymous person that wasn’t disclosed who it was in the court, and that they might hire someone like Blake Masters.
So I think you have to say that a highly litigious billionaire, even if he wraps himself in the mantra of free speech, may have a different idea of what that means than you or me. And I think there’s certainly a way in which the right has embraced him and certain online free speech brigades. But I think it’s either disingenuous or naive at best. The free speech issue is definitely something that matters. And but it’s also, of course, tied into these larger issues of content moderation, and harassment on the platform and, as Musk said in a letter he released today to advertisers, how do you make Twitter a safe, welcoming space? It doesn’t mean, of course, that you have to make it a very censorious one, but that’s what the right seems to think. So those are issues that he’s definitely going to have to tackle and deal with. And then what I talked about in The Baffler and elsewhere, and I think what’s really overlooked, is a broader sense of what free speech is and what does security and safety and privacy mean for Twitter users, especially overseas. We can go through the whole Saudi issues, but there are two main things, there was a spy-ring that ran inside of Twitter were run by some Saudi officials who Jack (Dorsey) still follows one of them on Twitter. And then a top Prince owns about 5% of the company.
And then there’s the third factor, which is that at least a couple times a month, there’s someone arrested in Saudi Arabia for tweets that they make. And that one, I think, is actually the overlooked part of the whole Saudi relationship — it all matters. But if you were almost any kind of company, and people were being regularly imprisoned for using your product, and ostensibly you stood for free speech, I think that’s a real problem. Of course, Twitter is compromised in a lot of ways, including in sort of a political and financial sense and their relationship with Saudi Arabia. So we can be cynical about and say: Of course, they don’t say anything. But it’s a real problem. And it calls out for an ethical and moral response from the company. But of course, they’re in no position to do that. They almost never say anything. I think also journalists need to start calling up Twitter more when this kind of thing happens.
PM: There’s a real tension in what you described there. Because on one hand, Elan Musk talks about this idea of free speech that is very much pulling from obsession with wokeism from the right wing that that is going on right now that we’re all very familiar with. But then on the other hand, he talks about how he’s still going to abide by the laws of various countries. So if we’re thinking about somewhere like Saudi Arabia, that can be pretty concerning, especially if Saudi Arabia has influence in the company itself. And I wanted to talk a bit about the politics, because there’s one part of this whole six months that’s revealed a lot about Twitter about the discussions that we have about Twitter, about its problems and how we’re not focusing on the right problems. But then in the other hand, I feel like Musk has become much more open about his own personal politics and who he associates with through this period. And in The Baffler piece. I I want to quote something that you wrote. You said: “Musk is no longer a carnival barker-like industrialist, profiting off of hyped up public enthusiasm and government largesse. Instead, he’s emerged as a dangerous kind of powerbroker, impossibly rich, amoral, full of empty technophilic promises, promising lawfare against his enemies and able to manipulate asset prices and headlines in a tweet.” So do you want to expand on that and talk a bit about what this whole process has revealed to us about Musk? And the relationship that he has with us with the public with society, even broadly?
JS: I appreciate that. I think looking at him as some kind of industrialist helps us just as a basic model or framing. He has lots of interests. He’s obviously, by some measures, the richest person in the world, but he has lots of interest in various industries and around the world. So whenever he’s trying to do business anywhere, just look up his famous tweet when he was saying he was going to take Tesla private for $420 per share, a stupid weed joke, that kind of thing. But he said he has funding from Saudi Arabia. And obviously, he has issues with China and manufacturing there. And it’s a big market for him, just anywhere you turn, he has potential political entanglements, certainly abroad. And here, he’s a big client of the US government. There are national security concerns on behalf the US government with some of stuff he does. So that sort of entanglement of relationships and varying incentives is actually pretty important, and even people who might ostsensibly be must supporters should probably think about. This guy has his hands on a lot of pies. And he doesn’t seem to have very firm principles. To me, he is sort of an amoral rich guy with the kind of reactionary ‘I don’t like where things are going nature’ that is found a lot in tech, and especially in his circle, and in Paypal Mafia types. So he stands for this general idea of innovation and exploration.
But politically, I don’t think he really has any firm principles. I admit, I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at his donations. But he’s not really known much as a political donor. And a lot of these guys have their ideologies, and generally lean towards the right, but also put their money where they think it might get them something. So I think that’s important to realize; Musk is a global political and business player, for better and worse, probably mostly for worse. And that really influences where Twitter fits in his empire and how he might treat a serious issue at Twitter. For example, before based on whistleblower testimony and some reporting, it seems as if Twitter hired some sort of Indian government official or agent of the Modi regime to work at Twitter. You have to think that this kind of thing is going on elsewhere. There’s been accusations that there was a Chinese spy on the Twitter payroll, knowingly and unknowingly. I think they’re probably people with connections to US intelligence; certainly, we know they’re former people from intelligence working for these companies. So those kinds decisions are pretty important. And if you’re so compromised and entangled and have varying and competing priorities, I don’t see how you can really be a responsible steward of this company.
The other thing I think we might want to get into at some point, or that comment you read was alluding to is this idea that Twitter is not just a website that a lot of people use, or kind of an also ran social media site. Actually wonder how it might change and its relationship with sort of mainstream media mean, all the addicted journalists, you know, will we not trust as much, but more importantly, it is sort of this, I almost call it an intelligence service of sorts, I mean, he’s just going to have a lot of access to data to news as it happens to consumer sentiment, to DMs, if he wants to. It’s not to say that the current regime, or Jack might not have done these kinds of things before but Musk is associated with kind of financial engineering, potential stock manipulation, Doge pump-and-dumps. He will be able to do that if he really wants to, and he can do it through cutouts or ways in which it won’t really be traced back to him.
PM: So I want us to get to the broader politics. But I think that’s a really important point, because there’s a question about what Twitter actually looks like in a Musk world. Because we know that he’s buying it at $44 billion, the original valuation, even though the whole tech economy has gone into a tailspin since that happened. As you said, he’s already very leveraged; a lot of his money is tied up in Tesla, and if he pulls too much from it, then that threatens Tesla’s valuation as well. There’s a lot of these banks and financiers who got into it, who seem not super happy that they have to finance it at this valuation. It looks like it’ll be riskier for their investment; they probably won’t make money on it. And then that poses the question of what Elon Musk is actually going to have to do with this platform. Sure, he’s taking it private, but I’m sure he won’t want to have it lose money indefinitely. He’s talked about how he might want to see new monetization techniques that he wants to pursue in order to make it more financially viable, because Twitter traditionally has not really made money at all or just small amounts of money.
And so Twitter, for better or worse, does play this important role in how many key sectors communicate online. Sure, it’s not used by the broader public in a way that Facebook is. But there’s a lot of journalists who use it; there’s a lot of politicians who use it; there’s a lot of activists who use it and things like that. So there’s a lot of kind of relatively important discourse that happens there. And then so what happens if Elon Musk comes in starts to make these changes, starts to make the platform less appealing to people to still be there in the way that they have? What does that mean for all those discussions? But also, what does it mean for Musk himself who has really benefited from the way that Twitter has helped to elevate his status and his position and place him really in the center of a lot of these discussions?
JS: That last part, especially, is a good point. The status quo actually, as you say, has been really good for Musk. The LA Times and elsewhere has done reporting about how, obviously, Musk has built up his cult on social media. But also, there have been a lot of bots and kind of other potential information operations — or platform manipulation is a term I’m sort of trying to embrace but — that goes on seemingly in relation to his account. He’s probably the most impersonated person on Twitter, and that’s not to say he’s doing that or someone from his company. But the messy version of Twitter that he’s inheriting has actually done really well for him. I was a little shocked when I heard that he might cut 75% of staff. It sounds like that’s not happening. You never really know with Musk until something happens, what it’s going to be. But that kind of thing does concern me because the company is poorly run, and perhaps theyre even is some bloat, but there are a lot of things it needs to do better. And there already was a major whistleblower a month ago, that was warning us of all these basic issues around privacy, security, how data is managed, and then I’m here shouting about Saudi users being arrested and things like that. It’s a pretty dark scene he’s entering already.
I think the question is what happens if it becomes less appealing, if it stops being in the newswire for much of the media, stops being the place where news really breaks. And it’s not to say that Twitter is essential, but it is for better or worse important, and it occupies a certain role. It doesn’t have nearly the user base of a number of other services. But if Twitter somehow kind of falls into even further disrepair and disuse, and doesn’t play that driving role in the media ecosystem, it’s not necessarily for the better if that market share, that role just gets subsumed by TikTok or something else. I’m not really a fan of creative disruption, but maybe there is a chance to kind of rethink at least or think about what one would want out of Twitter out of the digital public sphere, which I know some media scholars don’t really like that term, but we sort of have the systems and tools we have, and for better or worse Twitter is that. It’s where a lot of these conversations are happening, and what is really driving a lot of news coverage. So it could get even messier, of course, and he has certain incentives. Once he privatizes it, he can kind of do whatever he wants. Right now, they don’t really want to deal with the bot problem, I think, because it drives up engagement. And to admit, it would be to say: A lot of our users actually aren’t even here.
Once you take the company private, he doesn’t have as many as disclosure requirements; no one’s trying to really buy it from him right away. He can clean house both personnel wise and on the platform, and reconfigure whatever he wants, and then present it to new buyers or in a new IPO a couple years from now and say: Look, I made you a new, better Twitter. Will we really know what that is even or what it looks like under the hood? I don’t even know. I talked to people who say Twitter now is rife with platform manipulation. Certainly if you cover crypto, you just see scams and spam all the time, including what verified accounts and things like that. But it’s like every intelligence service in the world, practically, is running some sort of information operation on Twitter; it doesn’t mean that they’re convincing lots of people, but there’s a lot of manipulative activity going on, including the advertising. So I think we had to think about that — the spectrum of manipulation, the various kinds of activities that are happening on for the platform, the lack of policing in some form or another, at least transparency, and how there’s this potential for all that to get worse, once Musk is fully in the driver’s seat.
PM: Well, we’re just moving from Twitter through to X, right? That’s going to be the next iteration of Twitter where we’re going to have all these other great features as well that we’re going to love and that’s going to be so amazing, like a Chinese WhatsApp.
JS: I can kind of see him just throwing a lot of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks and saying: Put crypto in; oh, let’s get Dogecoin! And, of course, a lot of random monetization efforts, or hiring influencers to post content, even though they already do. That was one suggestions in the texts that were disclosed. And that’s the problem, I think, with Twitter is that it doesn’t really have any easy way out towards sustained profitability and growth of the kind that’s expected by venture capitalists and investors. Twitter might actually be better, of course, as a public utility of some sort, or at least a kind of a cooperative model or some form of public shared ownership. But also, it might be at least better than the status quo as kind of a loss leader for someone. Musk says he feels some sort of sense of responsibility or, or stewardship. I don’t really believe that’s true. But perhaps there is someone who we can put a little more good faith in that way. But that’s not going to happen right now. But in terms of what we want out of these future platforms, I think it’s certainly a reminder that we need other ownership models, because it’s just being passed to another billionaire and his other financier backers, who are all friends with the last ownership group pretty much.
PM: And I think that we can certainly recognize that whatever happens next, it looks like this is going to happen, it will be certainly interesting, at least to see what happens with Twitter, whether it falls apart under Musk’s leadership, whether we eventually moved to some other platform or this just all implodes and who knows what’s going to happen. But I do want to move to a bigger picture. Because we’ve been talking about Musk and Twitter and some of the right wing ideas that have influenced the discourse that he has been engaging in on what the future of Twitter should look like. But this is linked to something that that is much broader that’s going on now with tech billionaires, Musk included, that they are engaging in, that they are pushing forward. And you also wrote a piece recently for The New Republic about David Sacks, and he’s probably a tech billionaire that people are less familiar with. I feel like he doesn’t have the kind of public profile, maybe at least outside of certain groups, that someone like Elon Musk, or Peter Thiel has. So who is David Sacks and how does he fit into this whole conversation?
JS: He is a very wealthy tech executive and investor. Right now, he runs a company called Kraft Ventures, which is his VC firm. And he’s also known as the co-founder of a site called Callin which is a podcasting website. He’s certainly worth the hundreds of millions, maybe a billionaire; I don’t think his net worth has been publicly disclosed. He’s also has allude to being a big crypto holder, especially of Solana. There’s an infamous clip from his podcast that he does with three other VCs where they basically talk about how they have hundreds or millions of millions or even a billion dollars worth of Solana at the time that they all bought at a discount. But anyway, he started in the early to mid 90s. Actually at Stanford, he met Peter Thiel and they started writing together they became basically writing partners. They wrote op-eds; they both were part of kind of a larger counter revolution or reaction, I would say, to the 60s generation of Stanford and the previous lefty hippie generation of Stanford. And there were by that time, a lot of people who didn’t care for that, or were kind of rebelling against the vestiges of that, which sometimes were shown in kind of, in some of the professors who trace back to that time, but also new efforts to be kind of multiculturalism was a big baggy word for them to be perhaps more embrace diversity and progressive values and things like that.
So this was a big deal for him — these efforts at multiculturalism and diversity at Stanford to him and Thiel. Thiel started something called The Stanford Review, which was a political magazine, conservative basically. And then later on, they wrote a bunch of pieces for different mainstream papers, Wall Street Journal, National Review, stuff like that. And then they wrote a book called “The Diversity Myth.” And “The Diversity Myth” has become sort of notorious, because they brush off rape really as a problem, or certainly has an epidemic on college campuses. And then there’s some stuff where they basically write that date rape is a vestige on the books of another era. And there’s something about some rape accusations or belated regret; there’s just a lot of minimization of rape, frankly.
And the book came up again in 2016 when Ryan Mac, who is a great reporter now at New York Times, he was writing for Forbes, he went through it, and pulled out some of those quotes about rape. And again, this is something that they have written about a number of times. For “The Sanford Review,” they had something called the rape issue. And they wrote about this stuff several times, and then in the book, finally. And the reason why I’m going into a lot of detail about this is because this all prefigures today, and arguments over wokeism and kind of reactionary discourse today. But if you just kind of sub out multiculturalism for woke, and you get a lot of what’s happening today. And they thought men were being vilified, and that sort of thing. So they released this book; it was a bit of a sensation among a conservative right, cultural warrior set, it then went away. They apologized for some of the rape stuff in 2016, but you go back through the book, and it does reflect a lot of troubling ideas. From there, anyway, founding COO of PayPal, executive COO at Yammer and Zenefits, which he is credited with turning around Zenefits, and then really now VC, Callin founder and increasingly a big political donor.
PM: There are a number of things that I can pick up on what you just said. And I think that we’ll dig into a number of them. But just going back to that period at Stanford, they’re also associated with a group, they’re writing about multiculturalism, about rape, there’s also an incident where some of the people who they’re associated with, I believe, at the Stanford review, are yelling homophobic slurs, and there’s a whole kind of dust up around that. There’s a really particular politics there that you can see in that moment, as you’re saying that seems now kind of reflected, or there’s elements of it that you can pick up on right now, these similar kind of politics that are repeating themselves, or at least there’s echoes of them that are relevant in what these people are promoting today. What do you make of that, because this does seem quite important, as the same sort of people who are associated with to back in the day, are now also associated with pushing this kind of anti-woke politics, this kind of new right politics?
JS: I was on The Majority Report recently, and Sam Seder made some connections to Pat Buchanan, early 90s, cultural warring paleocons. And that is sort of some of their attitude. And I think you mix that with kind of trolling, I would say, and also just this attitude, like, people shouldn’t be offended by things, minorities, or marginalized folks are generally the creators of their own victimization. There’s a lot of that kind of thing in the book itself. And I think you hear a lot of that now that actually by focusing on racism too much, we’re creating more division. And that’s pretty much a line from “The Diversity Myth.” And you hear that kind of thing today to that the problems aren’t the problem; racism or bigotry is not a problem. It’s the obsessive focus on it and elevation of kind of trivial examples into something else. I certainly disagree with that. But that’s kind of the the ethos or the guiding philosophy and it is based on, frankly, a lot of like white male resentment, I think and unhappiness, that kind of changing world and changing values. But that seems to be the style.
Sacks himself on Twitter lately has complains a lot about the woke mob. Frankly, if you have more than 50,000 followers or whatever, and you’re saying anything remotely contentious, you’re going to get a lot of people responding to you. So there’s always going to be a woke mob in David Sacks’s mind or even on his timeline. But I think that’s the attitude we’re seeing is that they’re still sort of the rational guys in the room. In the early 90s, they were writing about defending Western civilization. Now you hear that on the alt-right, for sure. You don’t really hear that from Thiel or Sacks. But this sense of that tradition is under assault, that there are ways to do things, and that an obsession with identity especially has really harmed societal unity and our politics. You both have that now, and certainly 30 years ago when they were writing.
PM: It’s fascinating as well, because there’s also this focus on the college campus and what’s going on there. And you see that today, you see that back in that period, you see it even earlier. There were obsessions about this then.
JS: Back to William F. Buckley and stuff like that.
PM: You just see these things repeat over and over.
JS: It’s a strange thing to me too, sometimes, because I went to college in the US. And there were political activities at school, and to be honest, I wasn’t that politically involved. I was sort of sitting there in outrage at the Bush administration. But I didn’t do much. But there are battles going on in campus and stuff like that. But I went to Emory school in Georgia, but I never really saw a university or campus as such a battleground. And I think a lot of college students don’t necessarily; I don’t want to generalize too much. But there’s a way for a lot of cultural warriors and people in politics or columnists looking for material — the latest absurd thing that come out of Oberlin, or Stanford, or Columbia or wherever is a call to man the battlements and to help defend free speech from these impetuous youngsters who just don’t get it. And you do seem to have that it seems to be almost evergreen in this kind of cultural war.
PM: Coming back to the present, and what we’re looking at now, you start off your piece in The New Republic by discussing the case of the former district attorney of San Francisco, who was really attacked for having a more progressive approach toward crime and these kinds of issues, and people like David Sacks really picking up on it and funding a campaign to have him removed from that position, to have him recalled, I believe the right word is in American politics. Can you talk a bit about that whole situation, what it reveals about the politics of these billionaires, but also more broadly, what is going on in California and in American politics?
JS: So the 90s stuff I talk about to say where they came from, and to diagram this lineage and everything like that. But what’s really important, of course, is to see what are they doing now. Now, the important thing is that people like Sacks are putting their money behind their ideas. And there’s a lot of money going from Thiel and Sacks and other people in the PayPal Mafia network, including from Keith Rabois, I believe is his last name, the guy who helped yell those homophobic slogans at Stanford, you referred to earlier. They said he was testing the bounds of free speech. So now that they’re putting their money where their mouth is, because they’re all extremely rich, these Stanford and PayPal buddies who have really ascended to places of tremendous prominence in the industry and in politics. There are charts out there about how many companies came out of PayPal, and there is a lot, and they’re pretty much all started by a small number of white men. The YouTube guys were not white; they were men and they came from PayPal too. But pretty much everyone early PayPal, who has gone on to be one of these very influential tech industrialists is a white man, a number of them are from South Africa.
So California is really the epicenter of all this stuff, San Francisco, of course. There’s a sense among the tech elite, I’d say, and also some disenchanted Democrats that democratic governance has failed — that small ‘d’ democrat, but also certainly big ‘D,’ the Democratic Party, that it’s become too woke, too indulgent in identity politics. And if you look at people’s material day-to-day lives, they’re worse. A lot of stuff is maybe true, certainly the material difference in people’s lives. And yes, there’s horrible issues with homelessness and drug use, and sort of other social misery in San Francisco and elsewhere in California. But what to do about it is a whole other question entirely.
PM: Just to pick up on that briefly, I feel like the left would make a lot of those same criticisms of the Democratic Party of how politics has gone. But then the question is: What is the response? What is the set of policies that you’re going to promote as the way that we address these questions? And there there seems to be quite a division between what people like Sacks are pushing, who are more associated with this Republican Party. But then there’s also a divide on the left that I want to get into in a minute because you discuss it in the piece around what the solution is here as well, because there’s a growing division there where there are a bunch of people who would say that they identify with the left who seem to be closer and closer to David Sacks and this kind of political approach.
JS: So Sacks and other folks like him, sometimes they pay a little lip service to criminal justice reform, and they are upset by open air drug use or homelessness. But to be honest, you hear very little sympathy for, say, the homeless people themselves who are often the victims of crime, and there’s much more of a draconian and criminalization attitude towards this stuff, where the cops need to come in and do something and restore order. And this is linked to the fact that homelessness itself especially encampments have been increasingly criminalized in places like Los Angeles and other parts of California. There’s a sense that homelessness is only going to be treated as a criminal problem, and that it’s inherently disruptive and suspect and that our cities need to be kind of rescued or taken back from homelessness and crime and open air drug use, and the Democrats have failed us. So they’re political attitudes that don’t come with much policy, frankly. And that don’t come with much empathy towards a lot of people suffering, I have no doubt that sometimes people show empathy towards other kinds of crime victims, like violent crime victims, or when when someone does get attacked by a homeless person, you see a lot of right wingers on YouTube up in arms about it, or on Twitter, or wherever else. But very little attention paid to how this problem developed.
We know, if you read even most basic research, that providing people actual housing is probably one of the biggest differentiators you can make to make a positive difference here, that we need to liberalize drug laws, all these sorts of things. But there’s a sense that either those things have already been tried and failed, or that we just don’t have the time, it doesn’t scale or something like that. And so there’s a real resentment towards both the status quo and also these progressive DAs (District Attorneys), and other progressive criminal justice types were coming in. So that’s what’s happening in California, they recall Chesa Boudin, the progressive DA who frankly wasn’t a great communicator, but he kind of was doing what he said he was goning do. Whether his policies were effective, I think, is up for debate. But he was certainly targeted by the city’s wealthy developers and right wing tech leaders as someone who needed a go. And so they put millions of dollars into his recall campaign. Because of the way money works in the system, you don’t always know where it comes from or where it goes. But there was a lot of money put into casting him as the sole responsible for us for San Francisco’s disrepair.
And then what’s worth pointing out, though, is they’ve been trying this a lot. So the recall and political spending is basically the main toolkit for people like Sacks. He put a lot of money to try to recall Gavin Newsom, the governor and support one of his challengers who was very anti-homeless, there’s not really another way to put it. And people have tried to recall Gascón, the DA in LA, who’s considered some more progressive. Now there’s an effort to impeach Larry Krasner in Philadelphia. Actually, after my article came out, I was hearing from people who work in the city in San Francisco or for the city or in education there, and I think there’s a general sense, really, they’re starting to tell me about another education issue outside the city somewhere else — I don’t have the name handy — but where a lot of outside tech money was flowing in, including from people don’t even live there. So I think the overall picture here is that there’s a lot of money flowing in to manipulate the legal system and the political system. And people who are locals and part of this sometimes feel that it’s slipping beyond their control. Certainly people in the education system who I talk to say: We don’t feel like we have much to say in this anymore. Yes, there are issues in San Francisco, and we need to fix things, but it’s now just in the hands of well-moneyed interests. And then there are also a lot of people who are understandably upset with what’s happened there and see the anger that Sacks is trying to project and also trying to bring in disenchanted Democrats and say: Okay, at least there’s someone who’s who’s reflected my anger; let’s recall the people in office now and try something else.
PM: It’s absolutely fascinating to see play out, absolutely concerning as well, to see the influence that they can wield, and how they’ve been effective in kind of crafting or at least echoing and spreading this narrative around crime and homelessness.
JS: It’s all about the fear of crime and cities are dead. Of course, you can trace it to some racist underpinnings, especially cities that happen to have large Black and other minority populations, and the urban core being seen as a this fearsome place. There’s a regular Twitter posts of: I used to be a Democrat, but then I went around the Upper East Side, and I felt so scared. And we kind of have seen this percolate through the culture and this conception that there is some kind of crime epidemic. There’s some has bad data. It’s how you interpret it, some forms of crime are up. Certainly crime in general, especially violent crime is much lower than was 30 years ago, and most American cities, but they are really giving up on the city on kind of multicultural democratic governance. They say and you’ll hear this, the Peter Thiel gave a speech recently at a conservative conference. We talked about this at Austin, Texas and Miami are kind of the last hopes for them. You know, we’ve heard for last couple years how people are leaving San Francisco for Austin. Elon Musk is in Texas, Dale and all these other companies are already there. And of course, it’s because Texas and Florida have no income tax. And they don’t mind Governor Abbott; they really like to DeSantis. David Sacks has donate a bunch of money to DeSantis. One of his co-hosts on his podcast Chanath, he’s donated hundreds of thousands of dollars, I think actually a million dollars to to a DeSantis PAC. So that’s kind of the horse they’re riding.
They’re just hoping that the problems of urban governance don’t follow them to these other cities that have serious issues surrounding them, including climate, but also don’t have income tax and have their own history of poor governance. And now the real estate prices are skyrocketing as they are in most American cities. So you know that’s where you have ask: What are you actually doing to fix this stuff? Thiel seemed to acknowledge this in his speech at this conservative convention last month; he talked about needing a more positive agenda, but no one has it. I make fun of the Marc Andreessen thing, ‘it’s time to build,’ because he’s the ‘it’s time to build’ guy, but he’s a nimbyiest and he just invests in crypto companies that don’t make anything. But none of these guys actually talk about building more housing, or finding more affordable solutions or redistribution resources. Of course, they never will. But they’re obviously so trapped in their ideology and their monetary self interests, that they are reproducing the problems that they left behind, in their suppose the last readouts of Austin and Miami.
PM: But Jacob, Adam Neumann is going to solve the whole housing crisis now — haven’t you heard?
JS: It’s disgusting that they’re just financializing and crypto-fying and arbitraging, on top of housing, which is obviously such an essential need, and it has become impossibly expensive for people. It’s hilarious in a way, but it also continues to be really gross. And, you know, you wonder, how long can I keep getting away with it? But they do because tech is still broadly admired and a lot of ways and they’re still rarely asked, like, how are you actually improving people’s lives? Like how you actually contribute to the public good? Or, Elon Musk, how are you going to actually preserve Twitter in the public interest? And we never really get good answers. That guy LeRon Shapiro has had some funny tweets about how he seems to collect videos of Web3 VCs unable to say really what the use cases are. And we rarely even get to that point, much less beyond it like these people have kind of coasted on reputation and money and authority and presume competence for so long. But they’re leaving a trail of wreckage and a lot of ways, I think.
PM: Of course, one of the most beautiful cases is watching Mark Zuckerberg fail, and enormously.
JS: It’s astonishing. I hadn’t realized and to some extent, just the degree. I knew the stock was crashing, and they’re saying a lot of money, but something like $15 billion this year. Basically because one guy wants to create a bad video game.
PM: A very expensive video game. But I want to pick up on that point, right, because in The New Republic piece you wrote, and I quote: “In the eyes of rich techies who have seen their beloved metropolis fall into decay, vast inequality and social misery, the state is dead. Their disappointment and alienation has melded with traditional Republican disgust toward liberal cities and their non white residents to paint a picture of irredeemable, urban squalor. These frightened urbanites are echoing the Trumpist drumbeat that cities, particularly in California are dangerous, dark places that must be tamed.” That’s what you’re talking about there. But when I read that I couldn’t help but then think they’re identifying these problems with cities, they’re identifying how cities have been unable to address these severe social problems that exist within them, especially in these California cities that have been really wealthy that have benefited a lot in recent decades. There was news the other day that it looks like California is going to overtake Germany and be the fourth largest economy in the world, if you separate it out from the United States. So it’s massive. It’s very wealthy, but it hasn’t been able to address these problems.
And then you think about why that is. And it’s in part because of the neoliberal governance, the slashing of taxes, that has really benefited people like Sacks and Musk, because they haven’t had to pay as much taxes, they haven’t had to contribute to public services. So cities and states and federal governments have not been able to provide them that has created these severe social inequities and social issues, the homelessness, all these sorts of things. And they certainly will never admit that this is the actual problem, how we’ve reoriented government in the state to serve the needs the benefits the desires of these fabulously wealthy tech billionaires and other wealthy people, of course, beyond them. That will never be admitted. Instead, it’s these racist issues, and it’s wokeism, and all these sorts of things that are the problem.
JS: There’s this assumption that we come to the end of the road politically, or it’s the end of history or something like that. And it’s a real bummer, because politics is messy and hard and pretty dysfunctional for us. But a lot of the solutions, if they can be agreed upon, aren’t mysterious: people need housing, and this is what’s really frustrating when, whenever Elon Musk and certainly as someone who’s written heavily about transport, you get this, like, you know, whenever he talks about the Hyperloop, and some mayor of a midsize American city says: Come show us in Vegas or whatever else. Like it’s not just like a distraction on the Internet for a few days or something that a lot of people write about, like it consumes resources, people start thinking that’s a solution. A city might actually invest in a pilot study or something like that, when public transport expensive as it can be to build has been available and known about and studied and used in very familiar and time tested forms for 100 years. And things are getting even better if we are able to devote our resources, that kind of stuff. There infamously recently there was an article about I think, in The New York Times about California, dropping the ball on high speed rail. There was a little bit of an almost racist joke, but something about the company that went to Morocco where it was easier to do business, because everyone might think that Morocco is sort of has corruption or something like that. But that shows the problems aren’t really with high speed rail or like finding some solution that’s suitable to California. It’s state capacity; it’s governance. It’s the fact that states and the federal government have become incompetent.
But that’s because we spent 40 years hollowing out the administrative state at least, and defunding essential programs, demonizing the concept of government itself, that all government is the same, except for the Defense Department, which is always good. So it’s really frustrating to me that there’s no conception of maybe we could refurbish some of our institutions; maybe we could replace some; maybe there are other solutions out there. And we just simply haven’t really tried them, because there’s so much greed and self-interest at play. And because our politics have become so dysfunctional. So I think that’s one kind of discussion that needs to be had, and maybe a conceptual leap that needs to be made, is that we don’t need innovators necessarily to rescue us from this stuff. We certainly need some political movement and hopefully, better political leaders, which of course is a depressing prospect. But there’s kno way but through except some form, I think, a political struggle.
And one last thing I’ll say on that is, that’s what kind of gets me a little frustrated about, say, these rich guys who are donating a lot of money to recalls. The day or day after of the successful Boudin recall, Sacks went on Tucker Carlson, who he seems to be pretty in line with, and Tucker Carlson credited him with making democracy possible. There’s this idea that he was representing the popular democratic will, which was disgusted with Boudin. Certainly Boudin had some opposition, just as with the school board recall, there was genuine opposition especially among Asian Americans in San Francisco, from what I understand. But there’s still this billionaire astroturfing effort going into these things. And to say a largely billionaire funded recall campaign is somehow enabling democracy is the opposite of what’s true, but it’s the classic right wing and even MAGA bait-and-switch about what’s populism now. And Sacks calls himself a populist now, too. So I think we need to actually like think about what power is and how it should be exercised, and also how we fix these things. And it’s not going to be because Elon Musk innovates a cheaper Tent City or something like that.
PM: Or some bricks from the tunnels to build affordable housing. But you’re talking about the politics there. And this is something that really comes up in the piece. And that has been out in the discussion for a while. And that’s that we have these people who are ostensibly on the left who are increasingly aligning themselves with this kind of right wing movement, this kind of right wing politics as well, that’s being pushed by people like Sacks that’s obsessed with woke culture, and all these sorts of things. Whether it’s the Substack bros like Glenn Greenwald or Matt Taibbi, that sort of approach to things. But then there’s more of these people who are going on the the Callin platform, which is co-founded by Sacks, as you said, and funded by Peter Thiel, even to talk about issues like the Boudin recall, which is a bit odd. But then we’ve also seen these kinds of talking points be picked up by, what I would say are, even more mainstream left wing media outlets like the Young Turks, which has really been hitting on the homelessness and crime stuff recently. So what do you make of this growing relationship between these two approaches to politics? And I guess the worrying path that that seems to be on?
JS: I think those trends are what I’m observing. Just to talk about Callin first — not everyone on that platform is the same. And I’ve talked to people who are of the left and I’m not trying to do some purity tests. But there are people who were brought to that platform because they got contracts or were recruited but people in general who might be called post-left or contrarian, at least according to the analytics website I used, the person David Sacks retweets most is Glenn Greenwald, who is on Callin. Though lately he’s had some family stuff and hasn’t been posted there. But Matt Taibi and some of these other people, just the single Aaron Mate, folks like that, Jimmy Dore people who kind of represent a certain disenchantment with liberalism itself, or certainly with the Democratic Party, which again, I think often has a solid foundation. I critique the Democratic Party from the left and kind of a typical leftist sense perhaps I don’t claim to be very heterodox, but it’s similar in that there’s this profound disenchantment, and cynicism that a lot of people feel. And it’s sort of like, well, what are you going to do about it? And again, this lack of kind of charity towards homeless folks in terms of sympathy and generosity, and tying that in with the crime issue, and kind of just seeing it as all a sense of like politicians have failed us and urban disorder, again, without real any sense of traditional kind of liberal sympathies, I’d say for a lot of people wrapped up in These horrible situations or horrible systems. So I also think it plays well on social media.
Frankly, I think some people believe it, but some people do it because it gets you a big reaction when you court controversy in any way. Cenk Uygur from the Young Turks said yesterday he was going to vote for Rick Caruso, who’s the kind of Republican billionaire property developer who represents I think, the LA version of some of this stuff. He’s not a techie, but he’s a former Republican; he’s a billionaire; he’s a bit of a reactionary. He calls himself a Democrat now, but he’s certainly pretty draconian on crime and homelessness and things like that. And he said he’s basically just sick of things, and that the Democratic Party needed a shake up. Again, we’re not really getting anywhere positive here, or even entertaining positive solutions. It does come from a real disenchantment and anger that I think can kind of border on nihilism. It’s funny I’m quoting Peter Thiel so much, but I actually thought in some ways his speech — I don’t think his speech was that great — but there were some interesting notes in it at that NatCon that I’ve been referring to where he referred to something called nihilistic negation. I think that’s what he said that Republicans do. And that’s the constant obstructionism I think that Mitch McConnell is a master of, and the traditional Republican Party. But it’s also this new, right MAGA anger and politics of peak and anti-woke, just leave me the hell alone. I don’t even want to see a homeless person outside the door to the Twitter office, when I have to go to work and make $250,000. So that’s where I see it kind of settling. I don’t know if I say I understand why it’s attracted to people putatively on the left, but I think I see that’s where they’re coming from at least. And it does get a response; a lot of people are upset. And it’s not a popular thing to say: Oh, give them houses or seize the empty homes in New York, which there are many empty luxury apartments and stuff. But people who want to have a more positive solution, the people on the left, do have an obligation to kind of organize for that and bring that forward. But also you don’t have to be naive or ignorant and say: We’ve tried everything.
PM: I think it’s really well-said. And I think it’s been concerning to see this increasing move in this direction, that, as you say, is based in something concrete, something that makes sense. There’s a real serious problem with American politics, with Western politics, with its orientation, with the liberalism that has kind of consumed it that has kind of dominated it in recent years that isn’t addressing real material issues. But then that can sometimes be used to draw people in a direction that doesn’t seem very productive, and seems kind of obsessed with some of these issues, like woke culture and whatnot that aren’t really pushing us in a positive direction into getting things done, and are pushing more and more people toward the politics of people like to like musk like David Sacks and whoever, which seems particularly concerning if you think about the future and where things could be could be going down the road.
I wanted to ask you about Thiel, because we’ve talked about Musk; we’ve talked about Sacks. Thiel has kind of come up in this discussion, but his influence seems quite important, because he’s at the center of The Stanford Review back in the day. And certainly I talked to Moira Weigel about its history a few months ago. But the PayPal Mafia, this group of people who’s at PayPal, as you were describing, who come out of it, who have a lot of influential companies, tech companies that get founded, who go on to become quite rich, seem to be playing a really important role in what is happening in the politics right now in trying to shape that in deploying money to try to influence electoral contests and whatnot. What do you make of the influence that to has in this whole sphere, to what degree do these other you know, rich folks kind of follow on what he is already doing?
JS: I think he does have a lot of influence. Certainly, he’s very wealthy and powerful and connected. It’s funny, I remember like five years ago or longer, perhaps pre-Trump, some of Thiel’s investments and his hedge fund were doing very badly, but Palantir has endured and Palantir is also just a very influential vehicle for him because he is an intelligence state and security state contractor. But he still remains very rich and politically connected. And he’s the one who I think has shown the most ideological and political commitment of this group. But now you see people coming to the fore like Sacks, who’s always been politically interested and active, but who’s now donating a lot of money and sometimes at the urging, reportedly of Thiel. Sacks gave about a million dollars to JD Vance’s PAC, right before Trump publicly endorsed JD Vance. Both of those things, the endorsement and the money, were reportedly brokered by teal, so he’s sort of a model but in a way, he’s kind of a dilettante. He seems to lose interest sometimes. There was some reporting a month or two ago that he may not be as excited about Vance and Masters and he was clashing with McConnell. McConnell basically said to him: Well, you put these guys on the ballot, you might as well help put them over the finish line with more money. And Thiel was sort of: I don’t know if I want to. But you know, he was also very early on Trump and he stayed with Trump and and gave him more money when almost no one was. So he has a certain kind of savvier luck of ending up on the side of power. Certainly.
One thing we haven’t really talked about his foreign policy. That’s what Sacks has gotten known for lately. And because he talks a lot about Ukraine, and he’s basically anti-US intervention, very Maga isolationist. Actually, when I was on the Majority Report, they made reference to Bircherism, which John Bircher Society is not that far off, in a way it’s like a very America first. It is a real emphasis on like: Why do we need to interfere with another country when we all these problems here that aren’t as core to our interests? But it also is sort of opportunistic, I would say, and it is informed by 20 years of disastrous warfare or more since 9/11. But it’s hard to feel like the people especially in the MAGA crowd, or in Sacks’ and Thiel’s milieu, who claim hesitance about Ukraine now would have been doing the same about Iraq or Afghanistan 15 years ago. Of course, that perceived restraint, or perhaps even preference for diplomacy or other liberal practices and virtues, I don’t think really extends to their domestic policy, which again, I think is very cruel in some ways and libertarian competition based, highly capitalistic, almost corporatist, or in Thiel’s case, fascist. Thiel has said that he thinks the US should have a dictator. He’s not really a fan of democracy. He’s written, somewhat fancifully if you want to be charitable about it, that women shouldn’t vote. Thiel is certainly is not a friend to democracy. And so when I think when you see a lot of anti-democratic movements or currents going through our society and through politics worldwide, and the rise of the global far-right and far-right populism, Thiel is of a peace with this. He is a far-right industrialist deeply connected to the security state, deeply politically connected billionaire, basically has a set of beliefs out of the fascist playbook. What differentiates him in some ways is that he’s a tech guy, and instead of being an Italian futurist or something in the 1920s, he’s a surveillance contractor for the CIA. But I think it’s important to recognize what he represents, and also what some of his colleagues and people who are very like-minded, they may not have exactly the same priorities, or be as openly far-right. But I think they’re both in this whole milieu of reactionary tech guys and reactionary PayPa Mafia people are part of the general right wing, anti-democratic drift, that you see going through us society, certainly, and predicated on this larger disenchantment with liberalism, and the sense that both parties are corrupt, which again, is true.
PM: Absolutely. I think the Ukraine issue is a whole other conversation, really.
JS: I started my article about Sacks over the summer. He might have been talking about Ukraine, but I think some people sort of accused me— even Glenn Greenwald did, though, of course, he didn’t name me — but of sort of like this is a liberal establishment who loves war now, trying to shut Sacks up or something. But my article actually barely mentioned Ukraine or foreign policy, because I think, actually, it’s pretty neatly summarized. It was much more about this political domestic influence and where the money is going domestically. I also think Ukraine can be really hard to talk about, because I’m a leftist who’s pro-diplomacy and is uncomfortable about US involvement. But I wouldn’t say my position is the same as someone like Sacks who wants to give over Crimea, and there are other differences. But tagain, there is sort of a kernel of truth, even the Ukraine stuff or in their disenchantment with government domestically. And that’s why you do see some of this catching on a little bit, people have a right to be very frustrated with the status quo and not see a lot of political way forward.
PM: Absolutely. And there was the letter the other day from the Progressive Caucus, I think it’s called in the United States saying that we need a more diplomatic approach toward Russia and Ukraine, and even the Pod Save America folks who are not radical lefties at all, quite center of the road, were saying: I think that people are getting a bit too opposed to diplomacy and just supporting Ukraine at all costs with whatever arms and weapons they want, and we need to start thinking about the implications of this.
JS: I won’t go too far down this road, but it is a narrowing of the political horizon in some way to kind of bring it back. First of all, you negotiate with your enemies, that’s just how the world works and how diplomacy works. But in general, we have this narrowing of the political horizon and of political possibility, of the Overton Window, however you want to frame it, and certainly the tendency towards constant war and also seeing this as a righteous war is part of that. And then here at home, the sense that the economy is run by oligarchs who are just funding their pet causes and their pet politicians. Unfortunately, that has led to a lot of political disenchanted and also just straight up lack of participation. And that’s just another struggle that we have to fight against anything.
PM: And as you say, when you look at what the Democratic Party is doing and trying to close off these avenues for left-wing criticism of their policies and things like that, the only place that you tend to hear it or that you hear the most of these kind of criticisms of the way that things are operating right now is from the right from this kind of new right, alt-right, from people like Musk and Sacks, then that draws people in in this way.
JS: There’s so much ceding of territory. And one thing I wanted to refer back to also is the working class thing, actually, and material stuff that you were mentioning earlier. You see these ex-Democrats that appear on Fox, and even some people, inthe Republican Party say democrats have abandoned people’s material needs, which again, is kind of true. The thing is, Republicans have just learned how to say that they don’t have any actual solutions. I mean, there’s the weird mix of neonatalism and nationalism from JD Vance, where he’s like: Give people a little more welfare, and they can have more babies and women can leave the workforce. But there’s no real comprehensive program or anything or anything really sensible from the right to improve people’s economic lot, their material condition. Of course, we’ve gone through two plus years of pandemic with no movement towards universal health care, nothing that’s going to move the needle for people, but at least that lip service, which isn’t nothing is being paid by Republicans, and it’s so pathetic that that’s the state that we’re at, and that they actually have some claim to that. But again, it’s because everywhere you look here, there is some left-wing equivalent or liberal equivalent, perhaps, or at least the similar forces of money and corruption in play, and real disconnect from how people are struggling and the continued wealth gap in this country, and any efforts to actually speak to that beyond a few token people in Congress in the Senate.
PM: It’s very concerning. And especially if we’re already seeing this drift toward the right, because they’re the ones who are trying to dominate this issue. And certainly, when you have Fox News and a whole right-wing media infrastructure that ensures that people only hear a lot of these right-wing folks talking about these issues, then it draws people more in that direction. I want to pick up on a couple final things to start to close off our conversation. We were talking about Thiel, we’re talking about these tech billionaires who are increasingly getting involved in politics in the political system. I think that there’s something quite interesting that for a long time, the narrative of Silicon Valley was very much like keep the government away from us, let us do our innovation, unleash our tech products on the world. This is how we make the world a better place by entrepreneurialism, innovation, tech development, not by having the state get involved in things. And now more and more, as these people have become really powerful as they become really wealthy. Certainly we’ve talked about Musk and Sacks and Thiel, but also Andreessen’s “It’s Time to Build” essay is all about Silicon Valley, kind of showing its power a bit more, trying to influence society even more, there seems to be a greater desire by these people to unleash their wealth in such a way to further shape the political system to serve their ends, their needs, their desires, when it really was already, in a sense, oriented toward them anyway. So it seems quite a concerning development.
JS: There is a self-sustaining aspect to greed and being a billionaire — you want it all. And that’s how you got to where you are. I mean, the Libertarian phase of tech may have always been a little bit of a red herring or sort of temporary, not quite what we thought it was. I am a believer in the Californian ideology is sort of like the arc that a lot of tech has followed. But you’re right, the libertarian stuff, as in law, has always been dispensed with. They still want some kind of personal freedom, and certainly embodied in crypto and Bitcoin. But they don’t mind the government’s are informed, there’s a lot of money in working for the government. And I don’t need to recapitulate the whole narrative history of how the government gave rise to Silicon Valley, and Musk has benefited enormously from government contracts and incentives with Tesla and SpaceX. So Thiel’s obviously a huge government contractor, even as he wants to either overthrow the state or reconfigure it in his image. So it really is about asking, not just what they’re saying, but how is power operating? Where are their contracts? Where’s the money going? Where are they getting money from?
And, another sort of smaller example might be someone like Palmer Luckey, actually. He created the Oculus and sold to Facebook, really young guy considered an innovator, Thiel Fellow, and is sort of libertarian, or at least right-wing in some way. But now his new thing is a defense tech company. He basically builds border tech and sells drones and stuff to the border police. I think he’s actually a representative figure, Palmer Luckey, and his sister happens to be married to Matt Gaetz. He has political connections he’s close with, to me is more the developing archetype. And maybe the precedent is in Thiel, maybe it’s in Howard Hughes, but it’s someone who is of the right who perhaps has a little bit of social liberalism or libertarian attitudes. They don’t care if you smoke weed, but they don’t mind working closely with the security state and benefiting from government contracts. Microsoft has huge contracts with the government at this point. And given that we kind of work in a pay-to-play political society, it only follows that eventually they’re gonna start paying politicians and try to start shaping the laws. The Koch brothers who are libertarians of a type — one of them is dead now — they’ve been shaping legislation to their interest for decades.
And in some ways, this is almost the opportunity or window for some of these tech guys to assume that Koch brothers type dark money, oligarchic position. I kind of hope no one ever occupies that position. But that’s what I think a larger trend I see now is that you have people like Thiel and even Sacks and others ascending to that role, or playing key roles like Palmer Luckey. And the relationship to the state as far from libertarian. It’s certainly like: Well, the state helps me and funds my research and pays my bills and gives me billion dollar contracts to build weapons. And also, of course, fulfills this nationalist instinct that allow them feel. Some of them might claim to be anti-war or not want to get involved in Ukraine, but they’re deeply nationalis a lot of these folks. Again, in that sort of classic John Birch sense of, and the America first sense, which really does trace back to the John Birch Society in the 40s. In America, first of all that. So it’s important that we can’t just call them blanket libertarians or something like that; you have to see how they are instruments of the right and of the right-wing state or are shapers of it now. And freedom for them means something very different than freedom for you or me.
PM: It also makes me feel like we often talk about the tech industry as though this libertarian phase kind of defines what it is and where it comes from. But I feel like increasingly, we need to look back to that earlier stage before the libertarian turn of the industry, when it’s very much a state contractor, it’s very conservative, to almost see your relationship to what is going on now. Because that libertarian phase happens in a moment when the United States is hegemonic, the Soviet Union still exists for part of it, but is not the kind of rival that that it previously was earlier in the Cold War. We’re now entering this period where the United States is, once again, has its power in the world threatened, has its technological supremacy threatened by the rise of China. And it feels like a lot of these Silicon Valley folks who previously benefited from the globalization of the Internet and American tech, and could pretend that they didn’t have this relationship to the government and weren’t benefiting from it, because they were libertarians and blah, blah, blah, are now really cozying up to the American government in a way that they hadn’t in the past, because there’s this threat from China, there’s the growing threat of they’re these big monopolies, these major firms that are having more and more kind of scrutiny paid toward them. And so if you get close to the government, again, if you buy into the nationalist rhetoric and even echo it, that is also beneficial for those companies, because they’re going to get the public subsidies to public funding, like the chips act recently, the restrictions that have been put in against Chinese tech to try to preserve American tech and their markets and things like that. But then it also benefits them to buy into this whole narrative to buy into this adversarial relationship that exists. And to get a closer relationship to the government. I believe the Secretary of State was even in Silicon Valley a couple of weeks ago to talk to a lot of these companies. So I think this is where we’re headed, right?
JS: Those Silicon Valley trips have become standard. I joked the other day on Twitter, I was just muttering things myself. And I was like: We live in Eric Schmidt’s world, which is that fusion of Defense Intelligence, and Silicon Valley, in a lot of ways has come to pass. And doesn’t really matter whether sensible liberals are in charge at Google, or right-wingers are in charge at venture capital companies, or wherever else like Peter Thiel, in practice, they share a lot of same ideology. I do think that the adversarial relationship with China, certainly, it’s complex, and you can see how it’s why it’s happening, but is very unfortunate. And a lot of I find it’s a sort of useless or bombastic in a way that I don’t really see what the point is. What does it mean that we’re going to beat them in quantum computing, or we have to beat them in AI? I don’t really know. The CHIPS act I don’t really like because it seems like a subsidy. But at the same time, I do want to build things here, as I talked to you about earlier, and I would like the next TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Ltd. ) to be in the US, so we don’t have to go to war over Taiwan. But even that framing is sort of a right-wing framing. I would think there’s some version of multilateral cooperation that’s possible and remaining a democracy ourselves and not just like slipping into a liberalism and nationalism, and anti-China xenophobia, but that really is kind of where we’re headed.
And even in a soft way with a lot of the tech industry that there’s two sides of the fence and they’ve chosen a lineup next to the US for both reasons of self-preservation and profit. It’s certainly the case that a lot of these people who worked in government, now, of course, there’s a big revolving door. There’s a lot of security state-type people, a lot of policy people of both parties who are now working in Silicon Valley. So I think even as the political landscape has changed with Trumpism, and this sort of seeming ascendance of the right-wing, maybe the correct thing to say is that, by default, this is all kind of right-wing. Again, I talked about sort of the narrowing the political horizon. This is sort of the uncomfortable place where we’ve ended up at, there are hardly even any independent tech companies of any reasonable size. How many Mozilla’s are out there, or even something like Spotify, which is obviously Swedish and things like that. But we’ve just been so consolidated on sort of where political authority is wielded, where monetary and business authority is wielded that again, brings us back to this place where there’s nothing that you or I can do, it seems like, except perhaps fall in love with a charismatic right-wing huckster on TV.
PM: I think that’s a really good point. I think, unfortunately, it leaves us in a in a pretty kind of terrible place when we’re looking at the future and where things are going. But this show isn’t about being unnecessarily optimistic. It’s about looking at how things actually are and the terrible ways that the tech industry is affecting society and the world. So, Jacob, I really appreciate this conversation, I’d highly recommend people go read the pieces that we’re talking about in The Baffler and The New Republic, which will be linked in the show notes. Thanks so much for taking the time and of course very much looking forward to your new book coming out next year, and highly recommend people go preorder that. Thanks so much!
JS: Thanks, always a pleasure. I really like it.