Mimesis, Violence, and Facebook: Peter Thiel’s French Connection (Full Essay)

During the week of July 12, 2004, a group of scholars gathered at Stanford University, as one participant reported, “to discuss current affairs in a leisurely way with [Stanford emeritus professor] René Girard.” The proceedings were later published as the book Politics and Apocalypse. At first glance, the symposium resembled many others held at American universities in the early 2000s: the talks proceeded from the premise that “the events of Sept. 11, 2001 demand a reexamination of the foundations of modern politics.” The speakers enlisted various theoretical perspectives to facilitate that reexamination, with a focus on how the religious concept of apocalypse might illuminate the secular crisis of the post-9/11 world.

As one examines the list of participants, one name stands out: Peter Thiel, not, like the rest, a university professor, but (at the time) the President of Clarium Capital. In 2011, the New Yorker called Thiel “the world’s most successful technology investor”; he has also been described, admiringly, as a “philosopher-CEO.” More recently, Thiel has been at the center of a media firestorm for his role in bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, which outed Thiel as gay in 2007 and whose journalists he has described as “terrorists.” He has also garnered some headlines for standing as a delegate for Donald Trump, whose strongman populism seems an odd fit for Thiel’s highbrow libertarianism; he recently reinforced his support for Trump with a speech at the Republican National Convention. Both episodes reflect Thiel’s longstanding conviction that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs should use their wealth to exercise power and reshape society. But to what ends? Thiel’s participation in the 2004 Stanford symposium offers some clues.

Thiel’s connection to the late René Girard, his former teacher at Stanford, is well known but poorly understood. Most accounts of the Girard-Thiel connection have described the common ground between them as “conservatism,” but this oversimplifies the matter. Girard, a French Catholic pacifist, would have likely found little common ground with most Trump delegates. While aspects of his thinking could be described as conservative, he also described himself as an advocate of “a more reasonable, renewed ideology of liberalism and progress.” Nevertheless, as the Politics and Apocalypse symposium reveals, Thiel and Girard both believe that “Western political philosophy can no longer cope with our world of global violence.” “The Straussian Moment,” Thiel’s contribution to the conference, seeks common ground between Girard’s mimetic theory of human social life – to which I will return shortly – and the work of two right-wing, anti-democratic political philosophers who were in vogue in the years following 9/11: Leo Strauss, a cult figure in some conservative circles, and a guruto some members of the Bush administration; and Carl Schmitt, a onetime Nazi who has nevertheless been influential among academics of both the right and the left. Thiel notes that Girard, Strauss, and Schmitt, despite various differences, share a conviction that “the whole issue of human violence has been whitewashed away by the Enlightenment.” His dense and wide-ranging essay draws from their writings an analysis of the failure of modern secular politics to contend with the foundational role of violence in the social order.

Thiel’s intellectual debt to Girard’s theories has a surprising relevance to some of his most prominent investments. For anyone who has followed Thiel’s career, the summer of 2004 – the summer when the “Politics and Apocalypse” symposium at Stanford took place – should be a familiar period. About a month afterward, in August, Thiel made his crucial $500,000 angel investment in Facebook, the first outside funding for what was then a little-known startup. In most accounts of Facebook’s breakthrough from dormroom project to social media empire (including that offered by the film The Social Network), Thiel plays a decisive role: a well-connected tech industry figure, he provided Zuckerberg et al, then Silicon Valley newcomers, with credibility as well as cash at a key juncture. What made Thiel see the potential of Facebook before anyone else? We find his answer in an obituary for René Girard (who died in November 2015), which reports that Thiel “credits Girard with inspiring him to switch careers and become an early, and well-rewarded, investor in Facebook.” It was the French academic’s mimetic theory, he claims, that allowed him to foresee the company’s 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.'” On the basis of such statements, business analyst and Thiel admirer Arnaud Auger has gone so far as to call Girard “the godfather of the ‘like’ button...”


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