Tech’s Plan to ‘Ethnically Cleanse’ San Francisco

Gil Duran


Paris Marx is joined by Gil Duran to discuss Balaji Srinivasan’s plan to implement “tech Zionism” in San Francisco and the threat posed by Silicon Valley's growing opposition to democracy.


Gil Duran is an independent journalist and former editorial page editor for the Sacramento Bee.

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Paris Marx: Gil, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.

Gil Duran: Thanks for having me.

PM: Really excited to chat with you. You’ve had a great series of articles in the New Republic recently digging into I think the ambitions of some of these people in Silicon Valley to transform not just the politics of the city, but politics more largely by carving out greater control and space for themselves within the US political system, but even to a certain degree beyond that as well.

And so I want to dig into those things. But before we do that, when we think about the politics of The tech industry and in particular their desire for different forms of government. We often think about seasteading back in the day about what was that 10, 15, maybe even 20 years ago when those particular ideas were popular, you have Peter Thiel kind of giving the money to try to do encourage this type of political movement. I guess how have we gone to the place where these people wanted to build little cities on oil platforms in the middle of the ocean to now trying to actually engage with politics and even carve out space for their own cities within existing countries?

GD: Yes. Well, as you say, the original idea was to create these sort of floating little water world cities, but as it turns out, being trapped in the middle of the inhospitable ocean is not a premium location for people who are wealthy and want to be self governing. And when you have only a very small space to pace around in the middle of nowhere, that’s more akin to prison than to paradise. So the idea has really morphed from being these kind of floating communities in the middle of the ocean outside of the jurisdictions of existing governments to finding ways through existing government or democratic or non democratic means to create sovereign territories on land where you’re connected still to existing infrastructure and things like nice restaurants.

And the idea has morphed into what some call network states or startup cities where wealthy people and their. Acolytes who want to help crowdfund can create new sovereign territories within existing countries. You see examples of this Prospera in Honduras, a Peter Thiel backed company is trying to build a new city on the Mediterranean called Praxis. There’s a project called Afropolitan for Africa. There’s projects basically in Latin America, Europe, Asia, and even here in the United States. We’re starting to see some talk of building a city. There’s a proposal for something called Colosa. And I think we’re seeing other projects, which is what I’ve been writing about, pop up in this same vein, attempts to create new network state affiliated territories on the land.

PM: It does feel like to me, it’s a real evolution of their politics and their power as well, because in the past, they used to talk a lot about being libertarians and they wanted to be outside of the state and to not have to worry about the taxes and enforcement and things like that, and they didn’t have the power to really shape government in the way that they have today with the many, many billions at their disposal and the power that comes with reigning over this dominant industry. So it feels like part of the reason we’ve seen the shift from, say, seasteading to, as you say, setting up these startup cities or network states and trying to carve sovereignty out of existing states is because they now have the power to do something incredibly different.

GD: Definitely, and that seems to be one of the main insights of Balaji Srinivasan who has become an important thinker on this for a lot of these gazillionaire ‘start your own country’ types, which is that you have all this amassed wealth in the cloud in cryptocurrency in these more volatile states. And the idea is you bring the wealth down from the cloud to the land and you buy real assets, real property, real estate. And with real estate, with buying massive amounts of property becomes political power, traditionally. So they think they’re reinventing something, but again, the landed classes, the wealthy have always known that you got to own things on the land. You got to own property, you have to own hard currency. And so that’s kind of the idea here.

And with the land comes political power. And I think they, rightly, see democracy as vulnerable to disruption. It’s not clear right now in 2024 that American democracy, as imperfect as it is, will continue to be our governing system for the next decade or for the rest of the century. And they see an opportunity, I think, to bet against democracy. One of the things that strikes me about this is that the wealthiest people in the world with access to so much, with so much power, social power, capital, you name it, see a very dark future where they have to prepare to be in fortresses or in bunkers or to not have democracy continue to exist. And that is kind of terrifying, but it definitely seems to be an animating principle for a lot of wealthy people, not just the billionaires. I know a few people who are not famous centi-millionaires or whatever. But they all have their little bunker, their little setup, their little disaster situation planned out.

And that seems strange to me because most of us are not in that position. The more conscious of us know that you have to have three days of food and water because we do live on a big earthquake fault. But. It seems to me that the wealthy are very pessimistic about the future and are planning for a future in which everything is very different. And that’s an important thing, I think, for the majority of people to be aware of, but most of us are too busy paying the bills and getting through life to think about the grand apocalypse and how we’re going to seize power and wealth further and profit from that situation too.

PM: As you’re describing that, I’m trying to think back to when we really see this shift. I know that Peter Thiel has been skeptical of democracy for quite a long time and has been open about that. And we’ve seen people in the tech industry working on these bunkers or trying to buy citizenship to New Zealand for a number of years now. It’s not a wholly new thing, but I think that they’re kind of catastrophizing has been become more intense in recent years, you have talked a lot about network state, this book that Balaji wrote and another important text. If we want to put it that way to me, when I think about this movement toward trying to use the wealth and the power of Silicon Valley to buy more political power is also Marc Andreessen’s, “It’s Time to Build;” essay from April of 2020, when he really says like: We need to use the power of Silicon Valley to exert it in a much more forceful way to make sure that the world is increasingly looking like the world that we want it to look like, rather than something else.

Is there a particular moment that you see a shift here, or is it more like it’s been progressing in this way for quite a while, and it’s now reached this point where they are just becoming much more forceful than they have been in the past?

GD: I think it’s been growing for a while and we see the seeds have been there with this idea of the Dark Enlightenment to this kind of right-wing shift, this anti-democratic shift, but I would say a main accelerator was the pandemic. My first interest in this started with Elon Musk going nuts during the pandemic, deciding to keep his factory open against the rules of California at the time. And what amazed me the most about that was that the Governor and the State, which had been closing down restaurants and all these other businesses for trying to flout the laws, sat there and allowed Elon to do as he pleased, and that was shocking to me. I was very critical of it at the time. And just the idea that Elon knew he could get away with it. And he did.

And on top of that, I think the biggest story I ever wrote was an editorial for the Sacramento Bee when during this time, Musk said he would donate 1200 ventilators to the state because there was the time when there was a big ventilator shortage. And well, I check in a while later and it turns out he didn’t do that at all. After the Governor had gone on his daily appearance and thanked Elon profusely for this he sent a few CPAP machines with Tesla stickers on them and called that service. And this caused a big uproar because Elon was insisting that he had done it, even though the state of California was like: We have no receipt of these things.

So it seemed like during the pandemic, a lot of these folks felt the crush of being in a collective situation where we all have to work together to not increase the death toll, and saw threats to their businesses because it was really unclear what was going to happen with the economy. And suddenly you’re just not on some libertarian island where you can do what you want. We’re all connected. And I think some of them, like Elon, broke the rules and so they could actually do that. No one’s going to stop them. And after that, during this time is when, I guess, Balaji’s writing his book. And so that really marked the beginning of Musk’s public shift to the right and the far-right.

And I remember 10 years ago being an admirer of Elon Musk thinking he was a somebody trying to do good in the world. And as someone who has done public relations and politics, it’s not clear to me why you would need to constantly trumpet these beliefs to everyone. A lot of. CEOs and corporate types privately have very right-wing beliefs, but they’re really making a push to shift the Overton Window to radicalize more people, especially I think young white men and people who see a path for themselves in tech and make it clear that to belong in this club, you have to be an adherent to these beliefs. That’s what they’re doing.

And so I really view the pandemic as where they saw an opportunity to kind of take the mask off and go full force, because now people know big, bad things can happen that affect the whole world and millions of people can just die. And suddenly there’s rules. You can’t go outside without a mask or whatever. So to me, that was the moment when everything kind of came to the forefront. Of course, it was there all along, but you didn’t really see everybody rushing to telegraph their extreme and radical and strange beliefs before that on the scale that we’re seeing now.

PM: I agree with you on that. I think that the pandemic was a real accelerator that these beliefs were there, but they became much more open, much more public during the pandemic. But I also think that there was that piece of radicalization where they took kind of another step down that path of wanting greater control, greater power, in part, probably because they saw that the State could play such a powerful and important role in their lives, could change so much about so many people’s lives. And these people who have this inherent libertarian tendency, at least, they do not want to be trot on or they do not want to be affected, even if they can feel like they want to have the right to do whatever they want to other people, which is often something that you see with these tech folks. So you’ve talked about Balaji and the network state in this book that he wrote. What does he lay out for his vision for societies, for cities? What does he think this future that the tech people are going to build will actually look like?

GD: Well, the idea is that in the future, the United States and other democracies like it, will be kaput. They’ll no longer be powerful or useful, and in their place will rise up these sovereign mini nations and network states that are created by wealthy tech people and their crowdfunding acolytes. And so it’s kind of a post-democratic vision of the world. Balaji’s first public sort of statement on this comes in 2013, when he gives a speech in which he tells a young group of techies that the United States is like Microsoft. It’s a declining company and in the future, it will have to be something else. And he made the case for what the New York times called secession, for the Valley to secede and create its own governance and own nation. Interestingly, that speech was given at Y Combinator.

And Y Combinator is now become a major force in San Francisco for trying to take over city government and trying to instill a kind of a tech-funded, tech-governed, tech-aligned system of politics in the city. So in Balaji’s book, there’s two modes. There is what you call voice which is where you stay in an existing government structure like, say, the city of San Francisco and use your power and your voice to try to take over and change things and then there is exit which is where you say: I’m done with San Francisco; I’m going to go somewhere else we’re going to start a new city in Africa or in the Midwest or in Solano county or in honduras and we’re going to create a whole thing from scratch that we govern

And so, it’s interesting that Y Combinator restarted the speech is now at the forefront of this movement in San Francisco. Garry Tan, the current CEO of Y Combinator back in 2022, shortly before coming CEO, directly said that Y Combinator is an example of what biology talks about when he says the network state. So. That’s the idea. Use your money and your wealth to create new sovereign zones. I think like many wealthy people before them, they would like to pay less taxes or no taxes and to have a different set of rules and laws to abide by.

My interest in this topic really deepened, and I would credit this book with really getting me started on this path, “Crack-Up Capitalism” by Quinn Slobodian, a Wellesley historian. And he writes about how for, Centuries, the wealthy and the capitalists have found ways to create zones where the rules are different. Look at like Hong Kong or China’s special economic zones, or the Cayman Islands, or look, there’s all these little zones where laws work differently and where the wealthy have found sort of a haven to protect their wealth from taxes or to evade certain laws. Dubai, for instance, has a whole zone where there’s no labor unions and there’s a tax free holiday for 25 years if you incorporate there.

So it’s taking that idea of these special zones and creating a new form called the network state or a sovereign nation state. And for a long time, I had been looking at San Francisco politics and there was something going on deeper and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And when I ran across the Slobodian’s book while reading the New York Review of Books and then I got the book and read it that book talks about Balaji’s book and I got Balaji’s book and read it suddenly I had the language and the ideas in the words to see.

What it was that I couldn’t figure out before because when you’re a daily journalist having to write three or four things a week it can be hard to go deep right you’re just busy on the next thing and it’s easier to do the superficial they said this they said that, here is what the story is. But by having the time to read the books and to go deeper, I realized, holy crap, everything that Balaji says in this book is currently going on in Northern California and all over the world. And yet nobody reading about this stuff in the newspaper has heard a word about this. And so I set out to start telling that part of the story and I want everybody to read this stuff. I want the voters, et cetera, but a big part of my audience, I feel is other journalists to help them understand there’s something deeper going on here.

And let’s not wait two or three years for the New Yorker to send a big brain in and write about how San Francisco and Northern California got swallowed by this movement. Let’s start doing it now because voters need to understand the full stakes here. And so when I read Balaji’s book about either taking over existing governments and converting them to tech purposes or else creating new cities, I saw very clearly that it’s happening all over. And this is not a secret, by the way, they’ve got a whole website with all the projects underway.

There was a network state conference in October where Gerry Tan spoke, Y Combinator CEO, and he cast his efforts in San Francisco as part of the network state movement there was a guy named Jason Benn of something called Neighborhood SF. They have a plan to convert a square mile area of San Francisco into a campus for tech. Balaji Srinivasan is funding one of the companies behind that plan. So this is not I have extrapolated from vague tea leaf readings this is happening. This is money flowing, not to mention California Forever, which is a proposed 400,000 person city in rural Solano County, that they deny as part of the network state, but who’s involved? Marc Andreessen, who’s also an investor in Peter Thiel’s company, which is called Pronomos Capital, which is investing in network state cities around the world and is advised by Balaji Srinivasan.

So I think you got to be crazy to not see all the interconnections here. And I think journalists have to ask these deeper questions and be really skeptical. And people say: Yeah, we’re all connected and we’re all doing the thing that he says to do, but we’re not doing that — that’s kind of weird. In fact, in December, Balaji launched something called the Balaji Fund to fund network state city projects around the world. And its investors are Brian Armstrong of coinbase the CEO of Coinbase. Naval Ravikant, the famous venture capitalist, I mean these are serious people, taking it very seriously by putting their money into it. And that’s kind of very disturbing because in September, Balaji went on a podcast and did like a six hour appearance in two parts where he spelled out a very, very grim vision for a future San Francisco.

PM: It’s a very worrying vision, which we’ll get to in just a second. There are a number of things that I want to pick up there because I think you make a number of important points, the most important of which, of course, is that people need to actually be telling this story as it is journalists in particular, because so many people within the public rely on them to understand how the world is actually working right now, and if you’re presenting these people, as you talk about in a couple of your pieces as moderates, when they’re actually doing something very extreme, then that is not actually giving people the context that they need. You mentioned San Francisco, and I know that San Francisco plays this really important role in the justifications and the inspiration for a lot of these tech folks to want to proceed on this path of starting to take over and transform politics and transform cities and states in general, along the political programs that they want to see carried out.

So how does this experience in San Francisco inspire them? And in what ways do they distort San Francisco politics in order to justify these narratives that they have about as you say in one of your pieces that progressives ruin San Francisco and now like we need to take it back and fix it and all this kind of stuff. What role does San Francisco play there in their imaginaries?

GD: Well, one of the most important things to understand is that San Francisco actually has a very low crime rate compared to other cities in the United States, especially violent crime and homicide. This crime rate was much higher in past decades, in the 70s and 80s, when you actually had very conservative Democrats ruling the city. I worked for Diane Feinstein when she was a senator. She was a mayor, known for an iron fist. She ruled the city “like a Roman empress,” I used to call her the most popular Republican in California, even though she was a Democrat because often it was hard to kind of determine the difference between the two.

So this idea that somehow Progressive started getting elected and crime went up is just completely against the facts. I mean, it’s nonfactual. But of course, on the right, the facts don’t matter. The facts are what we say they are. So you have a city where crime has been relatively low, but what you do have is a massive increase of homelessness, poverty and addiction, opioid addiction, fentanyl, and with that, a surge in overdoses, overdose deaths. And no one can justify the horrific scenes you see in a certain quarters of San Francisco, and that deserves a massive public health response and to some degree, a law enforcement response, but we know that law enforcement isn’t going to solve addiction at the same time. We can’t have people wandering through and seeing just open drug dealing markets and violence and people suffering from mental illness and addiction overdosing on the streets that needs to be taken care of.

But what the tech folks have done, people like Garry Tan and the so-called moderate Democrats is wholly explained these crises in terms of blame. The progressives are to blame — a very simple narrative. All bad results are the result of progressive leadership. Now, the city has always had moderate mayors. What counts for moderate in San Francisco? And so that’s not exactly right. The mayor has great control over the police, right? They act like the progressives have kept the police from doing their jobs. Not true. We’ve seen sort of a massive work slowdown or stoppage since the George Floyd protests, and that’s been happening here as well.

And so what they did back in 2022 was decide that the new DA, Chesa Boudin, was the scapegoat. He was to blame for all crime, all problems in the city, even though he’d only been in office for about a year, and actually crime was sort of coming down from the pandemic highs. And they were successful in recalling Chesa Boudin. And so basically what they’ve done is a very old Republican trick. Progressives are weak on crime, no matter what the statistics say, and therefore the way we solve crime is to get rid of the progressives, ignoring the fact that crime is actually higher in Republican states. The overdose rates are even higher in Republican states like Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, etc.

Conservatives and Republicans and right-wingers have not found a way to solve these problems, but that part of the story never gets told. It’s just that the moderates blame the progressives, and that’s kind of the general conflict here. Interestingly, the one Democratic state that tends to be the highest crime rate is New Mexico, which also incarcerates more people than almost any other place in the world per capita. So if prison solved crime, then New Mexico would have a very low crime rate. But again, I’m arguing facts and statistics and data, and that doesn’t really matter to these folks, and they’ve done a very good job of convincing people that if we just take out progressive politicians, things will get better, even though they’re not, they took out Chesa Boudin, and then the OD rate went up, right? So he was not responsible for that.

And so basically, I don’t see that they really care about solving these problems, these tech folks. They are exploiting very real issues of concern in San Francisco to sell a very simple narrative of blame in order to take power and in normal terms as a former political strategist myself, I would wonder what the end game is because anybody who’s ever been in a campaign knows: Well, shoot, then you’re on the hook for results, then you got to solve it. Because in four years, it’s your fault. As far as I can tell, the end game is to push out all the poor people and all the problems from San Francisco to somewhere else and call that victory. So it’s not about solving the problem. It is about sweeping it out of the city with the help of police and new rules and laws, and apparently the acquisition of property. Buying property so that you have new control over entire blocks or parts of the city.

PM: It’s certainly a concerning vision, especially when you get into the more extreme parts of it that are expressed in the network state vision. We can see what you’re describing as the type of thing that they would want to do as a policy that we’ve seen some Republican governors, and I’m sure mayors as well, try to carry out where they try to get migrants or, or homeless people and move them to other cities to get them out of their jurisdictions. Of course, I think it’s Texas and Florida have been doing that to a certain degree in the past year or so, but it’s not, wholly, a new tactic. However, when we look at the network state vision for society, what we see is something much more extreme where Balaji is really breaking down the different parts of the population by color, the grays, the blues, and the reds.

And he is even talking about a tech Zionism or the ethnic cleansing of somewhere like San Francisco to get the blues, referring to the left liberals, Democrats out of there in particular. So what do you see in this more extreme vision that he’s laying out and how does he hope to implement something like this in a city like San Francisco?

GD: Well, when you read the book, like “The Network State,” the ideas are pretty radical, but he kind of kept a lid on some of the harsher and more disturbing parts of his apparent vision. When I went down the Balaji rabbit hole, started looking up his voluminous podcast appearances on YouTube, and I found one from a podcast called Moment of Zen in September of 2023. The first part is like two hours, and the second part is about four hours. And as I listened to it, I was so shocked by what I was hearing that I kept pausing it and having a friend come over and say: Could you listen to this and make sure that like, that was actually just said? That’s how disturbing some of this stuff was, I couldn’t believe someone would actually say this on tape.

It felt like a dream. And so I ended up making an entire transcript and going through it. And basically, the heart of it is that Balaji spells out a vision for a future San Francisco in which tech-aligned citizens adopt gray t-shirts emblazoned with tech logos like Y Combinator or Elon, he says, and they buy up and take control of entire streets and blocks in the city. And they also develop a system of basically bribery, where they feed the police officers at a big banquet every week, and also guarantee jobs for the police officers, kids, and siblings and family members, no matter where they are in the country, so that the police will be on the side of the tech aligned grays.

And the police who are aligned with the greys will get special uniforms created specifically by the greys to demarcate the tech aligned police officers, and they will “push out all the blues,” the Democrats and put up signs to show which parts of the city are under gray control. He talks about a system where you have to swipe in with a special ID card and that this is something that doesn’t have to be done through democracy, it can be done by buying up property and creating basically walled neighborhoods. At some point, there will be such a large number of grays that they will hold something he calls the gray pride parade, marching 50,000 strong in their gray uniforms with their police officers, with drones flying overhead in formation.

And bubbling genetic experiments on beakers, which doesn’t sound like a very good thing to do in public. And also statues will be erected to remind people of the horrors of democratic governance. All the streets will be renamed for tech figures. And this was the vision he laid out in this thing. And, you look at that and then you see this group called City Campus trying to create a one mile zone of the city that’s dominated by tech, and you see that the guy who said the thing about the gray pride parade is an investor in the Solaris Society one of the three companies behind this and it raises some alarm bells

PM: Naturally! That vision that you laid out when i first read it like my mind was blown i knew that these people had these really extreme visions for what societies under their control should look like, but this seemed like a real step forward. What you’re describing there sounds like an apartheid system where you have different classes of people that have access to different parts of the city and that have different privileges within the city based on whether they’re grays or reds, of course, which refers to Republicans, I believe, if I remember correctly, they’re allowed to attend the gray pride parade, but the blues are not.

And then even to the point of talking about creating propaganda, anti-blue propaganda, that is kind of put out to citizens to help encourage turning people against those people who have more like progressive or left-wing views. It is a very concerning thing to be hearing from people who command such wealth and power. Balaji is a billionaire, as I understand correctly, and there are many other people in Silicon Valley who are aligned with him. What does that say about the direction that tech is going?

GD: Well, it’s pretty disturbing that the people who have the most are somehow making themselves out to be the biggest victims and well. In January, Garry Tan went on Twitter and tweeted, “Die slow” at seven progressive supervisors on the board of supervisors. And apparently he was drinking at the time and it was some Tupac lyrics. So this anger, where does it come from? And I thought, if you feel this angry with hundreds of millions of dollars, how do you think it feels to not be wealthy in this country? How do you think it feels to see like even the middle class dream slipping away from you? What entitles these people to their anger and to their victimization ? And that is to me a really stunning development that they are now the victims. And so what you see in this kind of thinking is if you make yourself the victim, even though you’re powerful, it entitles you to now victimize others as a form of self-defense.

And that’s pretty much what Balaji says in this thing is that he perceives himself as being ethnically cleansed out of San Francisco, and therefore we must push out all the blues. Well, in what world is San Francisco, not a haven for millionaires and billionaires? And also where there’s plenty of diverse people walking around. I was at a birthday party that was bar hopping in the Tenderloin, one of the hardest neighborhoods in San Francisco last week, and it was fine. How terrified are you of a city? They have created this hysterical version of reality in their heads, and they’re reacting to that hysterical reality. But how are you going to conquer Mars if you’re terrified to walk down Market Street?

And I don’t get that. I don’t get why they have so much bravado, but also so much terror. It’s not really that bad, if you are not involved in the trouble. I grew up in a hard neighborhood around gangs where people died before they reached 18. People I knew. And if you’re not involved, it’s probably not going to happen to you. I stayed out. I wasn’t involved. But so out of this hysteria, out of this terror, rising vision of how bad things are, they have somehow made themselves the victims. And really it’s the poor who are suffering. It is the traumatized and the broken who find themselves in the Tenderloin looking for a fix that’s going to kill them. And that’s a huge problem. And I don’t think it’s acceptable to see that kind of suffering. And I do blame the Democratic party, the leaders of the Democratic party, progressive and moderate, for allowing the situation to get to this point, right?

And I don’t agree with the Fox News and Daily Mail constantly making it into a product. They should also be in West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, because it’s a problem there too, but it’s just becomes this partisan game instead of how do we solve this? How do we alleviate the suffering and reduce the death toll? And one of the things that I don’t respect about the tech folks at all is that they claim to be in alignment with science and advanced thinking and yet they’re against the scientific evidence based solutions for addiction. They just want police and jail as if the jail doesn’t have drugs in it. In fact the mayor who is taking this turn toward being a tech aligned gray, for the most part, her brother was doing time in the state prison. His parole chances were reduced because he got caught with heroin in his prison cell, right? There’s heroin, everybody knows there’s drugs in prison. So I don’t understand why they’re so far afield. They’ve really taken this kind of right-wing political positions.

But I think I’m grateful to Balaji for saying all this stuff out loud because the moderates are not blues, the moderates are grays. And grays are closer to reds, but grays despise blue. So he’s really giving us the names and the framing to understand what it is they’re talking about. I actually have a piece pending publication that’s going to talk about the word moderate and what it really means. I do a lot of work with George Lakoff, the cognitive scientist, and There’s no such thing as a moderate ideology. There’s not one platform all moderates agree on. So you have to do a different level of analysis to understand what it really means. And in San Francisco, it means Democrats who have embraced right-wing policies. The word moderate though, gives people the impression that it’s some kind of middle ground consensus position, and that’s a completely false idea. And so it’s called hypocognition, where you don’t have the words or ideas to express what needs to be expressed. And so it’s time to cure the hypocognition. I think gray is a great place to start.

PM: And I feel like when you talk about why are these tech people radicalized, you talk about how there are real people who are struggling, not just in San Francisco, but around the United States and many other countries in the world, as inequality has grown as their opportunities that are available to them have shrunk as the cost of housing has kind of skyrocketed as people have gotten addicted to these drugs and have found it very difficult to get off of those addictions because the supports and things are just not there.

But these tech folks, they act like they are the victims simply because society is a bit more critical of them, or they might be facing some higher taxes or regulations on their businesses or things like that, right? It’s completely divorced from the real difficulties that real people face, and it feels like this is a real key piece of their victimization .

Because in some of the pieces that you’ve written, you talk about how Balaji and Garry Tan of Y Combinator, and you see this more broadly within the This kind of aspect of the tech industry or this piece of the tech industry where these billionaires are so directly focused on the media and journalism as these kind of great evils in society because they are used to journalists treating them very positively, boosting their products, saying that they are the most amazing people in the world. But recently, there has been a turn where people are more critical of the tech industry and what they’re actually doing to the world. And it feels like this is a key source of that victimization that you’re talking about.

GD: Definitely. The idea they have of the press is a glowing coverage criticism cannot be tolerated. And that is something I wrote about in my recent New Republic piece that focused on Balaji and his philosophy was journalism has to be overthrown and destroyed. It has to be replaced with what he calls a parallel form of journalism, that is journalism controlled by tech plutocrats to serve the interests of tech plutocrats, which is basically propaganda or PR, not journalism.

PM: We might’ve seen a preview of that with the Twitter Files, right?

GD: The Twitter Files, all the work of Michael Schellenberger to try to undermine the media, Elon’s constant attacks and, Balaji even talks about stripping all the blue checks from people with Twitter. A lot of those people were journalists giving the blue checks over to trolls and anybody who’ll pay eight bucks. How do you displace existing systems of recognition or significance and in their place, put your own servant, Toady, in charge? Forces to replace that and yeah so it’s all about creating a parallel media where people cannot perceive reality from disreality because they’re fed something that is serving tech purposes? And just as the early version of tech’s dominance sucked all the revenue out from under journalism and newspapers, now, there’s this kind of attack coming over the top on the very credibility and legitimacy of journalism in the first place.

In fact, in his long podcast, I was surprised to find that Balaji went off for a good amount of time on Ida Tarbell, who was a muckraking journalist in the early part of the 20th century. She died in 1944. He goes on about Ida Tarbell ruined everything. What did Ida Tarbell do? Ida Tarbell exposed the workings of the Standard Oil Company and their corrupt and monopolistic practices resulted in the breakup of standard oil and in fact her work led to the creation of a law that created the SCC, which is the great bane of a lot of these tech folks and crypto folks. And so you’re still mad about Ida Tarbell? That’s just amazing.

And that tells you a lot. Journalists are there to expose corruption, to expose wrongdoing, to hold the powerful to account, and that’s a huge problem for these people who wish to do as Rockefeller did, or have the gilded age and the robber barron era return with fewer obstacles to success. And guess who just bought Ida tarbell. com? I was very surprised to find that it was available and I have another project coming soon that will make full use of that and remind journalists of who we’re supposed to be, who our heroes are.

It was funny when my New Republic piece came out, Balaji went on a big attack against me on Twitter, wrote a whole essay and kind of alleged that I must be getting paid by somebody to do this work, which is hilarious because you know what freelance rates are? We’re talking about like a few hundred bucks for months of work. I’m not doing this for money. I’m doing it because I love my community, because I love my country and because ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be a journalist and this is what journalists are supposed to do. If I wanted to make money, hell, I’d go work for them. Apparently it’s a great to go from the Democratic side to the right-wing side and suddenly your sub stack will make millions and millions of dollars. But fuck that.

PM: Yeah. They’ll praise you if you do that, right? When you talk about the journalistic side of this, obviously another person who you’ve said has really been at war with journalists is Garry Tan of Y Combinator. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how Y Combinator is, I think it’s something that most people see as this kind of startup incubator or at least what it originally was, how is this being transformed and kind of used in the local political arena in San Francisco?

GD: Well, this interesting thing happened back in 2022, this crop of sock puppets popped up and they were dubbed the Wencils because a few of these sock puppet accounts had the name Wencil and they were sort of AI generated or a few use the pictures of dead actors from Asia. And the Wencils were a group that seemed to kind of be a very tech bro-y group of trolls, angry at Democrats, stoking division and polarization and trying to kind of model this behavior that these angry tech voices should be constantly pushing back. Well, some savvy people in SF cataloged all the Wencils, showed how they were related and the Wencils soon disappeared. But what’s interesting to me is that in a way the Wencils have reappeared now because now the name of the game is it’s the angry right leaning trolls with a blue check by their name and their company bio in their name.

So what is emerged and a lot of this led by Tan who has made Y Combinator into a political organization, not a business organization anymore. It does business, but it’s overtly a political organization. And there’s all these little followers behind them who are doing the same thing, right? I’m going to use my position as some CEO of some startup, probably one that wants VC capital or Y Combinator funding or something. And I’m going to make my company and my face the voice of this angry thing. So you’ve seen this sort of emerge, a trend where you don’t keep your politics to the donations into the back rooms at the fundraisers the VIP suite, you overtly go on Twitter every day and under the banner of your company under your own name with a blue check, you engage in this very aggressive hostile to democratic governance discourse.

And so I think Tan has really led the way in making Y Combinator, not only trying to kind of figure out startups that might make it and become unicorns, but trying to figure out political strategies that might bubble up with the right funding and training and become political unicorns of some kind. If you can take the city of San Francisco, that’s what he said at the network state conference in his conversation with Balaji. If you can do it in San Francisco, you can do it. Anywhere. There’s a new newspaper that’s popped up. That’s pretty much just a propaganda rag for them attacking all of their opponents.

They’ve created political organizations that are Together SF and these different groups that are just basically pushing the gray ideology, the gray political cause. And so they’re trying to combinate a bunch of different ways to take power and seize power. But fortunately, some of it’s falling apart. They’ve found that hiring a bunch of people, there’s problems. There’s one of the main guys, an old rape allegation has surfaced. They’ve crossed some lines, maybe violating political laws by appearing to coordinate with different campaigns. There’s all these things you got to know in politics because there’s a lot of rules and a lot of ways to get caught and tripped up, but they’re definitely making a hard push. And I’d say they’re the key insight is the weaponization of companies as overt, engaged and direct forces in local politics.

PM: I feel like with what you’re describing there and what you’ve been describing for us with this vision, the parallel media that just echoes whatever you want kind of promoted out there, this idea of remaking the city so you have this hierarchy of grays and their aligned cops that they treat very well to make sure that they are doing the things that they want and their friends the reds that are all against the blues and try to recreate the city in this way where there’s actual exclusion of these people who they designate blues to try to push them out altogether.

And I believe it was in one of your pieces where you mentioned that Balaji kind of said that democracy doesn’t become a problem then because you’re just pushing out all the blues anyway. So then you can control the democratic apparatus that way. And I guess erode it eventually. But what does that tell you about the authoritarian and I would say increasingly fascist leanings that we see in Silicon Valley and the threat that that poses, not just to American politics, but I think far beyond that as well.

GD: I think to go back to Balaji’s statement in 2013, we saw the United States is the Microsoft of nations on the decline. I should note that the stock of Microsoft has risen dramatically since he said that. Microsoft is not quite on the trajectory he imagined. Peter Thiel said a long time ago, “I no longer believe democracy and freedom are compatible.” Patri Friedman, the grandson of Milton Friedman, the conservative economist who works with Thiel and is the head of Pronomos VC, the company trying to invest in these projects around the world, said democracy is not the answer. So there’s a very directly anti-democratic vein here.

Now, in the meantime, you have to use democracy to seize some of this power, but as Balaji spells out, it’s also about buying property. It’s about owning territory, about being able to create the rules in allegiance with the police. And I think we’ve seen this on the Republican side too, with the Trump Republican party, democracy is no longer guaranteed. Democracy is not necessarily considered the operating system of the future United States. And we’re at a moment where we’re not clear how that’s going to shake out in the short term or the long term. And so I think some people are placing some enterprising bets on where that’s going to go. And I think that you’re seeing this alignment of some of these major Silicon valley figures behind trump because he’s going to make All of this more possible, more easily.

If he’s willing to make a corrupt deal to give the oil companies what they want in exchange for their support, what the hell do you think he’s going to give the billionaires of Silicon Valley? I’d say creating your own little territories that you govern and be absolutely some low hanging fruit there. And, you see, there’s a fundraiser being held in San Francisco for Trump and one of the people hosting it is Chamath Palihapitiya. And a few years ago, he was going to run for governor as a moderate Democrat. What kind of moderate Democrat goes from being a moderate Democrat who’s going to run for governor on a moderate platform to supporting Donald Trump post January 6th and in the middle of all these indictments?

PM: Yeah, it seems like a lot of these tech folks have kind of run through the other Republican candidates saying that they weren’t going to support Trump; they weren’t going to support Trump. And now that he’s the one left standing, they’re like: Yeah, of course I’m going to support Trump. They just wanted to try to look like that was not what they were doing for as long as possible.

But I think I agree with you. You can definitely see how they would take advantage of what Trump needs right now to try to get into office, to get some good deals. If he were to actually win the election. And then we could see some even scarier things happening, just because of the boldness of the Republicans to not really care about democracy, but I think in part because we’ve seen the Democrats be so poorly committed to actually defending that and doing what is necessary to do that, to allow the tech industry to have this power and to allow the Republicans to keep chipping away at these democratic principles.

GD: Definitely. The Democrats have really failed to articulate the stakes. I mean, Biden started off by, it was going to be a campaign about freedom and whether we have democracy, but they kind of like veer off course and we’re talking about all kinds of things now. And it’ll be really sad if we see a great decline in American democracy in the next few years. Nobody told anybody that that was really what was at stake. And I think you see the Democrats also buying into Republican messaging on a lot of different issues. A lot of the Democrats here have gone toward: We got to get tough on crime and throw out all these progressives. Well, guess what? You’re just priming people to believe that what the Republicans say is true, and you’re failing to articulate a logical, rational, and moral case for how we actually handle these problems.

I actually am a moderate Democrat. I often get confused for left, but I worked for mayors. I helped run cities. We’re going to have a police department. Some people are going to go to jail. That’s just the way the world’s going to work because there’s bad stuff that happens. I’m not for getting rid of the police. Now, I also support a society in which we make investments that prevent these worst possible outcomes from happening in the first place. And I know that’s possible. I know that’s something we haven’t done and we don’t seem to be in any position to do. So that’s what makes me a progressive at heart, but that’s where I don’t see the so-called moderates. Being reasonable, I should be able to find a few things where I align with you, and it’s very hard to do that, because, okay, I’ll say we need more police, because, as Chesa Boudin said, the likelihood of getting caught is a bigger deterrent than a long prison sentence, but you won’t say that we need overdose prevention.

That’s how they solved it in Europe, and that to me is crazy, right? And it’s not that I want people doing drugs. I would prefer a world where nobody was addicted to anything. We’re not going to have that world. But we all know you got to save lives first to get people into treatment. And the way these gray line folks were able to shut down San Francisco’s one attempt at an overdose prevention center to me was a grave moral injustice. And people have died as a result of that. So I don’t see moderate Democrats staring back at me when I look at what they’re doing. I see all the Republican arguments. And unfortunately for a lot of Democrats, it’s been easier just to play along with that. Then to fight back against it or make a better argument just this week.

Eric Swalwell, a congressman, a democratic congressman I really admire. There was a postal worker robbed at gunpoint in Oakland. He goes on Twitter and blames it on the DA of Alameda County and says: We need the rule of law, blah, blah. Well, I looked up immediately. Guess what? Postal carriers are being robbed all over the country. In fact, there was a congressional hearing about it last year. It’s not just in California. And in fact, I went to a funeral in 2005 of a postal worker who was killed in a carjacking. So this is not something new that happened because of the progressive DA. And in fact, it’s federal law that protects postal workers.

So it’s actually the Feds who should be hunting and prosecuting it. This made no sense, but it was just that easy to go on and tweet some really Republican talking points, blaming Democrats for crime, which if we get into a game where disinformation and propaganda and the blame game are the coin of the realm, the Republicans are going to win. By the way, the Republicans have been spreading the rumor that Swalwell is some kind of Chinese agent and had an affair with a Chinese spy. I don’t see any evidence that that’s true, but should I wonder if maybe it is because somebody said it? I mean, so I kind of went at Swalwell a little bit on Twitter, but I do see Democrats for the sake of ease buying into it and wanting to just scapegoat the progressives.

But the criminal justice reforms that are being blamed for all of this came out of mainstream democratic party values 10 years ago when it was hip and cool to be against mass incarceration and racism and all of these other injustices of the system and to be for reparations, which you won’t find many politicians here now trying to grab onto that issue. But during the George Floyd protests, when they were all on their knees and wearing kente cloth, they were all over it. So there is a degree to which the Democratic Party is really weak and ripe for disruption because they will go along with the Republican talking points if they’re scared. And I don’t really see many people articulating a different vision.

That resists this race to the bottom Balaji also spells out that the process and the need to create gray politicians who on the local level, on the state level, on the federal level, start to reflect the gray ideology and its causes. And you see crypto is now becoming a huge force. They’ve got a huge PAC, one of the top PACs in the nation, about to blow millions and millions of dollars in the 2024 election. And whenever you have money, you’re going to have politicians who are ready to feed of the trough. I haven’t written about that yet. I will, but there’s a lot of places this is going that are not good. And I think people need to be awakened to it, but I do feel that there’s hope.

PM: Yeah. I feel like a lot of the problem there is how effective the right is that setting the agenda and the narrative. You were talking about earlier when it comes to this idea that crime is out of control in San Francisco, even though it was not reflected in the figures really came from the fact that this is what was being pushed out there by particular media organizations that it seems like had a lot of incentive to make people feel that way because it benefited particular Interests in order to do that and to mislead people as to what was actually going on. And I think you see that far outside of San Francisco. And of course, just the issue that so many governments are happy to invest more in police, but then not in mental health support and in healthcare and in the other things that people actually care about. would need if they’re going to try to be rehabilitated and get the assistance that they need to help them.

Not to mention, of course, housing, which is a serious problem in San Francisco and now in so many other cities. I did want to ask you, though, before we close off our conversation, we’ve been talking a lot about San Francisco and the politics of trying to transform San Francisco that the tech industry and Balaji and Garry Tan have been involved in, but there’s also this attempt to build a new city from scratch that a lot of powerful tech people have been involved in in California. Can you tell us a bit about that? And does it look like something like that is going to move forward or is local opposition going to get in the way of their vision of building this kind of tech city or network city in Northern California?

GD: Well, that’s what gives me hope. Polls show that the California Forever Project, this tech billionaire funded city they want to build is opposed by 70 percent of Solano County voters, with 61 percent at hard no. That’s a pretty catastrophic poll. I would take an unprecedented reversal in order to make it happen. What you had was this firm invested in by tech billionaires sneaking around for five years, buying up land, 60,000 acres, and then kind of being exposed by the New York Times is trying to build this city called California Forever. And the locals are not having it. And I call it the miracle in Solano because someone has found a way to unite both Democrats and Republicans in 2024, and it’s against the weird, creepy tech billionaire city. They claim they’re trying to do it for more housing to solve the housing crisis, but if they were trying to add new density to existing cities, that’d be one thing.

There’s Stockton, there’s the Central Valley where demographics show people will be flowing inland for the next few decades, but that’s not what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to create their own brand new city in the middle of rural farmland in a county where there is specifically a slow growth ordinance. So I would be surprised if they don’t lose big. I’m covering that in my local blog. The locals there have taken notice. They’re very excited. They’re sending me flyers, videos of the ads that are constantly on TV. And so it gives me hope that the people of Solano County are fighting back against this idea of dystopia developers have said this is not the way anybody who does this would go about it.

GD: I mean, there’s plenty of ways to add on to cities and to build density, but building an entirely new city in the middle of a rural area. Is very strange and I would note that back to the seasteading thing we started on there was a thing for a long time called a femoral where a bunch of people would bring boats and create a little floating city right there in the California delta just near rio vista where this city is being proposed and that was a project of the Seasteading Institute and Patri Friedman so i guess that’s how they found out about rural Solano County and all the opportunities available there. But I think Solano County is going to say hell no. And I think they’re on the front lines of a big battle that will determine the future for many of us and how far they can get. I would assume they’ve got some backup plan if they lose the election to try to go around that process and maybe get the state to impose a buy right, something like that. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

PM: That’s fascinating. And, it’s really good to hear that the folks there are against it. But then that also shows you exactly why these tech people are against democracy, because they don’t want these locals to be able to get in their way. Gil, this is clearly something that we’ll be following as we get closer to the election and we’ll be reading your work to keep up on the network stake antics that these billionaires are up to. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. I really appreciate it.

GD: Thanks for taking an interest.