This is part two of an essay on René Girard’s influence on Peter Thiel. Part one ran last week and you can read it here.
In my previous post, I examined social theorist René Girard’s influence on tech investor Peter Thiel. Previous observers have picked up on Thiel’s remark that Girard’s mimetic theory helped him identify the promise of social media, but they have left out a crucial dimension of Girard’s thought: mimetic violence, also a central preoccupation for Thiel. In what follows, I will make the case that Thiel invested in and promoted Facebook not simply because Girard’s theories led him to foresee the future profitability of the company, but because he saw social media as a mechanism for the containment and channeling of mimetic violence in the face of an ineffectual state. Facebook, then, was not simply a prescient and well-rewarded investment for Thiel, but a political act closely connected to other well-known actions, from founding the national security-oriented startup Palantir Technologies to suing Gawker and supporting Trump.
According to Girard’s mimetic theory, humans choose objects of desire through contagious imitation: we desire things because others desire them, and we model our desires on others’ desires. As a result, desires converge on the same objects, and selves become rivals and doubles, struggling for the same sense of full being, which each subject suspects the other of possessing. The resulting conflicts cascade across societies because the mimetic structure of behavior also means that violence replicates itself rapidly. The entire community becomes mired in reciprocal aggression. The ancient solution to such a “mimetic crisis,” according to Girard, was sacrifice, which channeled collective violence into the murder of scapegoats, thus purging it, temporarily, from the community. While these cathartic acts of mob violence initially occurred spontaneously, as Girard argues in his book Violence and the Sacred, they later became codified in ritual, which reenacts collective violence in a controlled manner, and in myth, which recounts it in veiled forms. Religion, the sacred, and the state, for Girard, emerged out of this violent purgation of violence from the community. However, he argues, the modern era is characterized by a discrediting of the scapegoat mechanism, and therefore of sacrificial ritual, which creates a perennial problem of how to contain violence.
For Girard, to wield power is to control the mechanisms by which the mimetic violence that threatens the social order is contained, channeled, and expelled. Girard’s politics, as mentioned above, are ambiguous: he criticizes conservatism for wishing to preserve the sacrificial logic of ancient theocracies, and liberalism for believing that by dissolving religion it can eradicate the potential for violence. However, Girard’s religious commitment to a somewhat heterodox Christianity is clear, and controversial: he regards the non-violence of the Jesus of the gospel texts as a powerful exception to the violence that has been in the DNA of all human cultures, and an antidote to mimetic conflict. It is unclear to what degree Girard regards this conviction as reconcilable with an acceptance of modern secular governance, founded as it is by the state monopoly on violence. Peter Thiel, for his part, has stated that he is a Christian, but his large contributions to hawkish politicians suggest he does not share Girard’s pacifist interpretation of the Bible. His sympathetic account, in “The Straussian Moment,” of the ideas of Carl Schmitt offers further evidence of his ambivalence about Girard’s pacifism. For Schmitt, a society cannot achieve any meaningful cohesion without an “enemy” to define itself against. Schmitt and Girard both see violence as fundamental to the social order, but they draw opposite conclusions from that finding: Schmitt wants to resuscitate the scapegoat in order to maintain the state’s cohesion, while Girard wants (somehow) to put a final end to scapegoating and sacrifice. In his 2004 essay, Thiel seems torn between Girard’s pacifism and Schmitt’s bellicosity.
The tensions between Girard’s and Thiel’s worldviews run deeper, as a brief overview of Thiel’s politics reveals. As a libertarian, he has donated to both Ron and Rand Paul, and he has also supported Tea Party stalwarts including Ted Cruz. George Packer, in a 2011 profile of Thiel, reports that his chief influence in his youth was Ayn Rand, and that in political arguments in college, Thiel fondly quoted Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing as society.” As George Packer notes in his New Yorker profile of Thiel, few claims could be more alien to his mentor, Girard, who insists on the primacy of the collective over the individual and dedicated several books to debunking modern myths of individualism. Indeed, Thiel’s libertarian vision of the heroic entrepreneur standing apart from society closely resembles what Girard derided in his work as “the romantic lie”: the fantasy of the autonomous, self-directed individual that emerged out of European Romanticism. Girard went so far as to suggest replacing the term “individual” with the neologism “interdividual,” which better conveys the way that identity is always constructed in relation to others.
In a seemingly Ayn-Randian vein, Thiel likes to call tech entrepreneurs “founders,” and in lectures and seminars has compared startups to monarchies. He envisions “founders” in mythical terms, citing Romulus, Remus, Oedipus, and Cain, figures discussed at length in Girard’s analyses of myth. Thiel’s pro-monarchist statements have been parsed in the media (and linked to his support for the would-be autocrat Trump), but without noting that for a self-proclaimed devotee of René Girard to advocate for monarchy carries striking ambiguities. According to Girard’s counterintuitive analysis, monarchical power is the obverse side of scapegoating. Monarchy, he hypothesizes, has its origins in the role of the sacrificed scapegoat as the unifier and redeemer of the community; it developed when scapegoats managed to delay their own ritual murder and secured a fixed place at the center of a society. A king is a living scapegoat who has been deified, and can become a scapegoat again, as Girard illustrates in his reading of the myth of Oedipus (Oedipus begins as an outsider, goes on to become king, and is ultimately punished for the community’s ills, channeling collective violence toward himself, and returned to his outsider status).
If Thiel, as he reveals in a 2012 seminar, views the “founder” as both potentially a “God” and a “victim,” then he regards the broad societal influence wielded by the tech élite as a source of risk: a king can always become a scapegoat. On these grounds, it seems reasonable to conclude that Thiel’s animus against Gawker, which he has repeatedly accused of “bullying” him and other Silicon Valley power players, is closely connected to his core concern with scapegoating, derived from his longstanding engagement with Girard’s ideas. Thiel’s preoccupation with the risks faced by the “founder” also has a close connection to his hostility toward democratic politics, which he regards as placing power in the hands of a mob that will victimize those it chooses to play the role of scapegoat. Or as he states: “the 99% vs. the 1% is the modern articulation of [the] classic scapegoating mechanism: it is all minus one versus the one.”
No serious reader of Girard can regard a simple return to monarchical rule – which Thiel has sometimes seemed to favor – as plausible: the ritual underpinnings that were necessary to maintain its credibility, Girard insists, have been irreversibly demystified. Perhaps on the basis of this recognition, and even while hedging his bets through his involvement in Republican politics, Thiel has focused instead on the new possibilities offered by network technologies for the exercise of power. A Thiel text published on the website of the libertarian Cato Institute is suggestive in this context: “In the 2000s, companies like Facebook create . . . new ways to form communities not bounded by historical nation-states. By starting a new Internet business, an entrepreneur may create a new world. The hope of the Internet is that these new worlds will impact and force change on the existing social and political order.” Although Thiel does not say so here, from a Girardian point of view, a “founder” of a community does so by bringing mimetic violence under institutional control – precisely what the application of mimetic theory to Facebook would suggest that it does.
As we saw previously, Thiel was ruminating on Strauss, Schmitt, and Girard in the summer of 2004, but also on the future of social media platforms, which he found himself in a position to help shape. It is worth adding that around the same time, Thiel was involved in the founding of Palantir Technologies, a data analysis company whose main clients are the US Intelligence Community and Department of Defense – a company explicitly founded, according to Thiel, to forestall acts of destabilizing violence like 9/11. One may speculate that Thiel understood Facebook to serve a parallel function. According to his own account, he identified the new platform as a powerful conduit of mimetic desire. In Girard’s account, the original conduits of mimetic desire were religions, which channeled socially destructive, “profane” violence into sanctioned forms of socially consolidating violence. If the sacrificial and juridical superstructures designed to contain violence had reached their limits, Thiel seemed to understand social media as a new, technological means to achieving comparable ends.
If we take Girard’s mimetic theory seriously, the consequences for the way we think about social media are potentially profound. For one, it would lead us to conclude that social media platforms, by channeling mimetic desire, also serve as conduits of the violence that goes along with it. That, in turn, would suggest that abuse, harassment, and bullying – the various forms of scapegoating that have become depressing constants of online behavior – are features, not bugs: the platforms’ basic social architecture, by concentrating mimetic behavior, also stokes the tendencies toward envy, rivalry, and hatred of the Other that feed online violence. From Thiel’s perspective, we may speculate, this means that those who operate those platforms are in the position to harness and manipulate the most powerful and potentially destabilizing forces in human social life – and most remarkably, to derive profits from them. For someone overtly concerned about the threat posed by such forces to those in positions of power, a crucial advantage would seem to lie in the possibility of deflecting violence away from the prominent figures who are the most obvious potential targets of popular ressentiment, and into internecine conflict with other users.
Girard’s mimetic theory can help illuminate what social media does, and why it has become so central to our lives so quickly – yet it can lead to insights at odds with those drawn by Thiel. From Thiel’s perspective, it would seem, mimetic theory provides him and those of his class with an account of how and to what ends power can be exercised through technology. Thiel has made this clear enough: mimetic violence threatens the powerful; it needs to be contained for their – his – protection; as quasi-monarchs, “founders” run the risk of becoming scapegoats; the solution is to use technologies to control violence – this is explicit in the case of Palantir, implicit in the case of Facebook. But there is another way of reading social media through Girard. By revealing that the management of desire confers power, mimetic theory can help us make sense of how platforms administer our desires, and to whose benefit. For Girard, modernity is the prolonged demystification of the basis of power in violence. Unveiling the ways that power operates through social media can continue that process.
Geoff Shullenberger teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University, and sometimes tweets at @daily_barbarian.
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