The Contrarian Review – Into The Strange World of PayPal Founder Peter Thiel | Biography books

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TIt is a book about the aphrodisiac effect of wealth and in particular the distortion field of reality that surrounds the people who possess it. Peter Thiel is such a person and the force of the field around him is so intense that it’s hard to believe everything anyone writes about him.

You therefore approach journalist Max Chafkin’s book with a certain skepticism. Has he managed to penetrate the “Thielverse” hype and penetrate the heart of the enigma wrapped around a riddle that is Thiel? The answer is: maybe. And if he was successful, then the bottom line is that Thiel is nothing as interesting as the media (and the political world) seem to think. He’s just a very rich and very strange human being.

He was born in 1967 in Frankfurt to pious Christian parents and came to the United States at the age of one. His father was a mining expert and took the family to apartheid South Africa for a few years before returning to the United States and settling in California. In school, Thiel was a classic nerd and a formidable chess player (apparently one of the best under-13 chess players in the United States). But even then he was seen as “impenetrable, distant and haughty.” Fifty years later, he’s pretty much the same.

Thiel then went to Stanford, which he hated. What particularly infuriated him was the supposedly liberal and politically correct ethics of the university and this led him to found the Stanford Reviews, a scabrously neo-reactionary little newspaper intended to troll liberals and their hated values. Therein lies the seeds of Thiel’s victimhood mentality, not at this point as a gay man (who came later) but as a white, conservative, non-PC man.

Despite this, he remained at Stanford Law School before leaving to embark on what looked like a standard legal career. While working in this barren wasteland, he co-wrote a book, The Myth of Diversity: Multiculturalism and Political Intolerance on Campus, which brought him to the attention of the more toxic segments of American conservatism and sort of launched him on the counter-current trail that has since defined his life.

Giving up his legal career, he tried to use his growing political notoriety to set up a hedge fund. It did not work. But then he met Max Levchin, who had an idea for software that would allow personal computers to communicate with central bank systems. The idea was to use digital IOUs instead of dollars to buy things.

It was the idea that started PayPal, which grew rapidly because eBay users loved it, and marked the beginning of Thiel’s rise to billionaire rank, even though he lost. money and was saved from insolvency by a “merger” with a similar company. outfit founded by Elon Musk. The company’s early employees and investors became what the media called “the PayPal mafia” because they used their windfall profits on a number of other successful tech companies (with Thiel taking a cut almost to every time). They have also provided their hero with a group of devoted followers who politely helpfully have his myth as he climbs the greasy post of his current obscene wealth.

Chafkin is a wonderful journalist and he provided a detailed and impeccably researched account of this trip. In a sense, The Contrarian is a chronicle of the development of a strange cult of personality: the Thielverse, whose members, overwhelmingly single right-wing young men, revere their hero as someone gifted with foreknowledge and insight. divine wisdom.

What is strange is that the disc does not really support this hagiographic vision. Thiel is not a gifted geek, just someone who is good at spotting an opportunity. His investment record is uneven, although it shows that he has always been good at getting out before the peak. And although he masquerades as a visionary who ridicules liberal democracy as being too slow and stupid to survive, in practice he has devoted much of his career to building businesses that feed off his governments. In that sense, its real legacy is Palantir, a supposedly omnipotent and omniscient company that can do magic with data analytics; in fact, he’s a run-of-the-mill government contractor like the rest of the aerospace and global consulting firms. Think of it as Accenture with an added halitosis.

The most interesting thought that emerges from Chafkin’s book is that Thiel is not a visionary at all. This is because it is only defined by what it is versus – liberal democracy, liberal elites, multiculturalism, etc. But if you ask what it is for then only one answer can be taken from this book: it is for Peter Thiel.

The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and the pursuit of power in Silicon Valley by Max Chafkin is published by Bloomsbury (£ 25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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