After Strange Gods: Peter Thiel and the Cult of Startupism

Peter Thiel at TechCrunch50 (2008). Image from Wikimedia Commons

Peter Thiel at TechCrunch50 (2008). Image from Wikimedia Commons

In the humanities departments of the university where I live and work, the word “corporate” is an epithet of disdain, and “entrepreneurship” is code for “corporate.” My fellow humanists tolerate the business school because it provides fuel for the English composition classes that keep us tenured radicals employed.

A confession: I used to share that outlook myself. But the experience of working alongside actual entrepreneurs and CEOs of various stripes shattered my comfortable assumptions. Not only did I find that entrepreneurs are willing to take risks that I would never hazard; I also learned that many are keenly interested in the world of ideas, theory, and “big picture” thinking. Indeed, such philosophically inclined entrepreneurs excel at practical wisdom—what Aristotle called phronesis—precisely because their imaginations have been nourished by contemplation. They are philosophers of a kind I will never be.

Prominent among these philosopher-entrepreneurs is Peter Thiel.  A co-founder of PayPal and Palantir, he has become a Silicon Valley guru, the contrarians’ contrarian. His new book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, Or How to Build the Future, began as notes taken by an admiring student, Ben Masters, who took Thiel’s course at Stanford. It is an ambitious book—it could even be described as Machiavelli’s The Prince as re-imagined for our startup age—and it puts Thiel’s command of the philosophical canon on prominent display. How many other business books at the airport bookstore draw on Hegel, Nietzsche, Aristotle, John Rawls, and René Girard?

Zero to One is aphoristic, biting, forthright, and at times, in the spirit of Machiavelli, ruthless. Thiel unapologetically commends the pursuit of monopoly (“the more we compete, the less we gain”), and then counsels noble lies to hide its achievement. He casts aspersions on the bureaucracies of existing organizations: “Accountable to nobody,” he writes, “the DMV is misaligned with everybody.” And he calls out bad ideas, particularly those coupled with shoddy execution. His take-down of failed federal investment in clean technology is well worth the cost of the book.

Thiel’s intellectual reach is anything but modest. He offers a sociology of creativity, a grand theory of human civilization, and even a sort of theology of culture–though it is not quite clear whom he casts as God. Indeed, it’s over the grandiosity and hubris of Thiel’s claims that I find myself parting ways with the more fawning reviews of his book. I realize that creative risk-tasking requires a healthy dose of self-confidence that can often come across as arrogance. What worries me, though, is not his confident dispensing of practical wisdom but the hubristic evangelizing for what might be called startupism.

A cult of creative innovation, startupism has four notable  features, beginning with the outsized role it accords to human creativity. As early as page two of the book, Thiel tells us “humans are distinguished from other species by our abilities to work miracles. We call these miracles technology.” His emphasis on the creative power of human making is laudable and timely, though not particularly new. (Thiel should add Giambattista Vico to his reading list.) What’s unique to startupism is the “miraculous,” god-like powers Thiel attributes to us mortals: “Humans don’t decide what to build by making choices from some cosmic catalogue of options given in advance; instead, by creating new technologies, we rewrite the plan of the world.” We command fate. “A startup is the largest endeavor over which you can have definite mastery. You can have agency not just over your own life, but over a small and important part of the world. It begins by rejecting the unjust tyranny of Chance. You are not a lottery ticket.”

Second, the creativity celebrated by startupism blurs the old distinction between Creator and creature. What Thiel calls “vertical” or “intensive” progress isn’t 1+1 development; truly creative, intensive progress is a qualitative advance from 0 to 1. I believe the Latin for that is creation ex nihilo. (And “[t]he single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress” is…you guessed it…“technology.”)

Third, as you might expect, startupism has its own ecclesia: the new organization founded by a noble remnant who have distanced themselves from the behemoths of existing institutions. “New technology,” Thiel observes, “tends to come from new ventures” that we call startups. These are launched by tiny tribes that Thiel compares to the Founding Fathers and the British Royal Society. “[S]mall groups of people bound together by a sense of mission have changed the world for the better,” he explains, because “it’s hard to develop new things in big organizations, and it’s even harder to do it by yourself.” We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that “the best startups might be considered slightly less extreme kinds of cults.” The successful startup will have to be a total, all-encompassing institution: our family, our home, our cultus.

Finally, in startupism, the founder is savior. Granted, Thiel—following Girard—is going to talk about this in terms of scapegoating in a long, meandering chapter that aims to associate successful Silicon Valley geeks with pop stars and other people we like to look at. But it’s not just that founders are heroes in their companies. The scope of their impact is much wider: “Creative monopolists give customers more choices by adding entirely new categories of abundance to the world. Creative monopolies aren’t just good for the rest of society; they’re powerful engines for making it better.” But to get there, Thiel says, “we need founders.” No founders; no progress. Steve Jobs, hear our prayer.

Thiel offers genuine, authoritative insight into entrepreneurship and the dynamics of a startup organization. When he tacitly suggests that society derives its crucial and even salvific dynamism from the startup, I become both skeptical and nervous. Can startups contribute to the common good? Without question. Are startups going to save us? Not a chance.

Thiel’s hubris stems from a certain parochialism. Startupism is a Bay-area mythology whose plausibility diminishes by the time you hit, say, Sacramento. The confident narrative of progress, the narrow identification of progress with technology, and the tales of 0 to 1 creationism are the products of an echo chamber. This chamber fosters hubris among the faithful precisely because it shuts out competing voices that might remind them of the deeper and wider institutional, intellectual, and even spiritual resources on which they depend and draw. We are makers, without question, but we are also heirs. We can imagine a different future, but we have to deal with a past that was created by others before us.

Thiel, and the New Creators like him (and get ready for a slew of parroting Little Creators coming in their wake), have drunk their own Kool-Aid and believed their own PR. It’s why all the sentences that begin “At PayPal…” grow tiresome and make you wonder why someone who developed a new mode of currency exchange thinks he brought about the new heaven and the new earth ex nihilo. One can applaud Thiel’s elucidation of creativity and innovation while deploring the (idolatrous) theology in which he embeds it. We need startups. We can do without startupism.

James K. A. Smith is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, where he holds the Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the author of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? and How (Not) to be Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, among other books. Smith is also the editor of Comment magazine.

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