Sunday, April 10, 2016

9/11 and the Origins of Facebook: A Conspiracy Theory

René Girard: "godfather of the 'like' button"?

During the week of July 12, 2004, a group of scholars gathered at Stanford University "to discuss current affairs in a leisurely way with [Stanford emeritus professor] René Girard." The proceedings were ultimately published as the book Politics and Apocalypse (Michigan State University Press, 2007). As one glances through the affiliations of the participants, one stands out: Peter Thiel, not a professor at a US or European university, but the President of Clarium Capital.

Peter Thiel, "philosopher-CEO"

The facts are these: Thiel, dubbed "the world's most successful technology investor" by the New Yorker, studied with Girard as an undergraduate at Stanford, and remained associated with him ever since. Imitatio, a private foundation dedicated to funding research connected to Girard's "mimetic theory," is a branch of his Thiel Foundation. When Quentin Hardy, a New York Times deputy tech editor whose usual beat is the Silicon Valley startup world, wrote the paper's obituary for Girard in 2015, he made much of the Thiel-Girard connection, noting that Thiel "credits Girard with inspiring him to switch careers and become an early, and well-rewarded, investor in Facebook."

Thiel made his name as a founder of PayPal (and is sometimes referred to as the "don of the PayPal mafia"), but his almost mythical role in Facebook's early years is probably what he is best known for. When Zuckerberg and his minions first decamped to Silicon Valley and were running the operation on a shoestring, the usual story goes, Thiel stepped in with a $500,000 angel investment. After that, there was no looking back: with Thiel, already a prominent tech industry figure, on their side, the young upstarts were now poised to turn the dormroom project into an empire. Thiel, meanwhile, converted his investment into shares, which he cashed out in 2012 for a cool billion.

What made Thiel see the potential of Facebook before anyone else? According to Thiel himself, as reported in Hardy's obituary of Girard, it was none other than the French academic's mimetic theory that allowed him to foresee its success: "[Thiel] gave Facebook its first $500,000 investment, he said, because he saw Professor Girard’s theories being validated in the concept of social media. 'Facebook first spread by word of mouth, and it’s about word of mouth, so it’s doubly mimetic,' he said. 'Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.'" Shortly after the obituary appeared, business analyst Arnaud Auger called Girard "the godfather of the 'like' button."

Now as it happens, Thiel made his crucial angel investment in Facebook in the summer of 2004 - the same summer, we recall, that he attended the "Politics and Apocalypse" symposium at Stanford, and delivered a paper there entitled "The Straussian Moment." In this essay, Thiel considers the exigencies of post-9/11 politics in light of the ideas of his college mentor Girard, in relation to the thinking of Leo Strauss, a figure who was newly in vogue in conservative political philosophy in the wake of 9/11, and the political philosophy of Carl Schmitt, whose concept of the "state of exception" (Ausnahmezustand) was widely discussed among academics of the right and the left in this period.

It is worth stepping back at this point to give an overview of Thiel's politics. He is known mainly as a libertarian who has given money to both Ron and Rand Paul, and to Ted Cruz. George Packer, in a 2011 profile of Thiel, reports that his chief early influence was Ayn Rand (no surprise there), and that in political arguments in college, Thiel fondly quoted Margaret Thatcher's claim that "there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families." Now, few claims could be more alien to Girard's thinking, which emphasizes the nullity of the autonomous individual, which he sees as a romantic illusion that masks the way identities are constructed through imitation; Packer notes that Thiel later moderated his position here, and that his investments in social media suggest an acceptance of the significance of the collective - but does not discuss whether Girard had any role in this partial change of mind. In any case, Thiel never changed his tune too much, if his support for the seasteading enterprise of Patri Friedman, Milton's grandson, is anything to go by.

It is no surprise that Thiel was dabbling in Strauss in the early 2000s - very few right-wing intellectuals weren't (according to Packer's profile, Thiel was still reading Strauss intensively in 2011). What is interesting about "The Straussian Moment" is Thiel's attempt to stage a conversation between Strauss and Girard. In many respects, the two could not be more opposed. Girard's sympathies are fully with Jerusalem, while Strauss's are mainly with Athens; and as Thiel himself notes, Girard's is a philosophy of disclosure, while Strauss's is one of secrecy. Girard believes the founding violence of the state, based on the scapegoat mechanism, has been revealed for all time by Judeo-Christian revelation, and modernity is a prolonged tarrying with the consequences of that revelation - which, he frequently asserts, is "irreversible." As Thiel notes: "for Strauss as for Nietzsche, the truth of mimesis and of the founding murder is so shocking that most people simply will not accept it . . . [F]ull knowledge," accordingly, must "remain the province of a philosophical elite." Indeed, "the successful popularization of such knowledge would be the only thing to fear."

For Thiel, 9/11 is above all the death knell of the Enlightenment: he states that "[t]oday, mere self-preservation forces all of us to look at the world anew, to think strange new thoughts, and thereby awaken from that very long and profitable period of intellectual slumber and amnesia that is so misleadingly called the Enlightenment.” The hope for expanding prosperity, democracy, and peaceful coexistence that came out of the Enlightenment project has been shattered by the terrorist attacks, he avers, and there is a need to rethink the fundamental assumptions of that project. In seeking the common ground between Strauss, Girard, and Schmitt, Thiel notes that they all share a conviction that "the whole issue of human violence has been whitewashed away by the Enlightenment."* If we follow Schmitt, Thiel notes, we must conclude from the death of the Enlightenment that it is time to return to a "robust" politics that "divides the world into friends and enemies." Such an openly belligerent, confidently anti-democratic politics, Thiel worries, would undermine the very identity of the West. His driving question, which the essay never fully resolves, is "[i]s there a way to fortify the modern West without destroying it altogether?"

To return to the coincidence noted at the beginning, as Thiel was ruminating on Strauss, Schmitt, and Girard in the summer of 2004, he was also ruminating on the future of social media, which he was in a position to help shape. What significance might he have accorded to Zuckerberg's business plan, in light of his reflections on the demise of the Enlightenment and the apocalyptic "state of exception" that followed 9/11? According to his own account, he identified Facebook as a conduit of mimetic desire, and likely to be successful for that reason. But what about mimetic violence? Accounts of Thiel's role in Facebook's early years never mention that mimetic desire is only half of Girard's theory. The other half concerns mimetic violence, the inevitable result of mimetic desire. Mimetic desire means that desires converge on the same objects of desire, which means that conflicts arise, and cascade across societies because mimesis means that violence begets more violence. The ancient solution, for Girard, was sacrifice, which channeled collective violence into the collective murder of scapegoats, thus purging it, temporarily, from the community. Ritual, the sacred, and ultimately the state, for Girard, emerged out of this process of purging violence through the scapegoat mechanism.

As we have seen, we know from "The Straussian Moment" that Thiel was thinking about this dimension of Girard's thought, and its contemporary political implications in the wake of 9/11. How might this concern with a potentially uncontainable violence, and with how to keep that violence at bay after the foundations of the state have been weakened, have played into his investment choices? Certain passages of the 2004 essay gain a new significance when we consider what else Thiel was up to that summer. At one point in particular, examining alternatives to Schmitt's proposal of a return to the politics of enmity, Thiel speculates: “A representation of reality might appear to replace reality: instead of violent wars, there could be violent video games; instead of heroic feats, there could be thrilling amusement park rides; instead of serious thought, there could be ‘intrigues of all sorts.’”

Now let's put the pieces together. Consider the following facts, drawn from the available evidence:

1. Thiel believes the post-9/11 West faces an unprecedented potential for mimetic violence, and because of the weakened authority of the state, lacks the resources to address this danger.

2. Thiel sees Facebook, fundamentally, as a vehicle of mimetic desire. 

3. Based on his reading of Schmitt, Thiel glimpses the possibility that a "representation of reality" - essentially, a simulacrum - could take on much of the traditional work of politics in place of the state. 

It seems, then, highly plausible that Thiel invested in Facebook not simply because he believed in the future profitability of the company but because he saw it as a new and powerful mechanism for the containment of mimesis, a mechanism that could perform that task far more efficiently than the moribund nation state. A further advantage, given Thiel's well-known libertarian techno-elitism, is that the managers of the mechanism would be based in Silicon Valley, and not Washington D.C. Facebook was not simply a smart and well-rewarded investment for Thiel, but an act of "politics by other means." The sacrificial (traditional) and juridical (modern) superstructures designed to keep mimetic violence in check had failed, but could there be a new, technological means to the same end? Thiel's support of Facebook seems to have been a gambit in favor of such a proposition.

Does Thiel - and should we - think that this plan worked? That will be the subject of my next post. 

*Although it should be noted that Girard does not seem to share Thiel's anti-Enlightenment zeal, even as he is certainly critical of many of the Enlightenment's assumptions. For example, in an interview with Le Monde published after the Sept. 11 attacks, Girard declared that "[w]hat we still need in the post-9/11 era is a more reasonable, renewed ideology of liberalism and progress."