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This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.
Hello and welcome to I Don't Speak German, the anti-fascist podcast in which I, Jack Graham, and my friend Daniel Harper have conversations about the far right's conversations. Every episode comes with a big content warning.
Welcome to I Don't Speak German episode 47.
You're hearing my voice, which means that Jack is not here. Normally I would have some snarky comment to make about how he's being lazy, but actually he's just suffering from coronavirus-related issues. I would encourage everyone to go and send him some love on Twitter and donate to his Patreon because he is not doing well... in some complicated ways that I am not at liberty to discuss.
But I do have a wonderful guest who... hopefully we will have a very nice conversation. I am joined by Corey Pein, who is the author of the book Live Work Work Work Die – I believe I have the right number of Works in there – and an amazing journalist and an amazing Twitter follow, who has his own work that he is working on.
We're going to be talking about tech ogliba... ogliopoly – I hate saying that word because I don't know how to pronounce it and fascism and whatever else comes up in this conversation.
So, Corey, welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me, Daniel. You did get the number of Works correct and I don't know how to pronounce that word either. I would just say tech fascism.
It's more concise. Fewer syllables, and I think conveys enough about what the general agenda and philosophy are that I talk about in the book.
Absolutely. I really enjoyed the book and I'm just going... this will be a little bit more of a casual chat, as opposed to the kind of more organized episode that we normally do, because I really just wanted to kind of sit and talk about the book and recommend it to people and get people to buy it.
I sort of... I'll admit I was a little bit skeptical. Sort of like, oh, another book about the tech industry, yadda yadda. A feel like there are a lot of those... almost a kind of gonzo journalism style. Like, oh, I went inside the tech industry and look at what I found.
But I found this one to be really interesting and profound. Particularly in its last sequence. Why don't we just start there and tell people, about the book and about the process by which you came to write it, and what it is.
Oh wow. Okay. Thanks for this terribly nice introduction. It's hard –
Can you summarize years of your life in eighteen seconds, Cory?
It is a hard book to summarize. I mean I think that's maybe why it's not burning the shelves underneath it as people snatch it off. Not saying it did badly, it's just –
It starts of as kind of a Silicon Valley safari in a way?
It's sort of like, oh, I went inside of Silican Valley. And I think that's sort of the selling point but I feel like the book kind of goes to some places that I was not necessarily expecting. I don't know. I don't want to damn you with faint praise.
I feel like the book is very, very good. But I feel like it's not necessarily the book that I thought I was buying... necessarily?
Well I hope that's for the best. Because I really didn't want it to be another tech book. By the time I was even to the point of finishing my reporting and starting to write, I was so sick of everything that had been written about tech and Silicon Valley, and I just wanted nothing to do with this subject... anymore.
In some ways the book is just everything I wanted to say about the tech industry and the politics of it and what it's doing to the economy and I said as much of it as I could fit into a book that got published.
It was sort of pitched as a safari, because that was the easiest way to touch on every aspect of tech that I wanted to approach. And the reason I even wanted to write about it is, I was a career newspaper reporter. I did investigations, mostly for alt-weeklies, for ten or fifteen years. And 2008, you know, there was a recession.
Probably not as bad as the one we're about to experience, now, in 2020. But pretty bad. It hit newspapers pretty hard, because a lot of them relied on short-term credit to make payroll and those were the markets that froze up immediately.
I got laid off and bounced around. Met my wife, which is great, and we moved to London, and I launched a website because that seemed like a good thing to do.
I couldn't help but notice, as all the newspapers sort of collapsed – it was like my whole newspaper career was just one long burning bridge sequence. Or like, if you ever saw that movie, 2012, about the Mayan apocalypse prophecy. John Cusack is basically constantly running away from volcanoes and things sinking into lava, and that's kind of what it felt like to be in newspapers.
Now I look over to tech and, like, everybody was happy and making money. They seemed very optimistic and had a lot of ideas, and so I thought, I can do that, because I was pretty good with computers.
And, you know, it didn't work out great. I learned a lot of hard lessons, launching a web site. And then when we're in London I ended up working for a proper startup, you know, with investors and stuff. Because I was just raising money to do investigations online. That's not very profitable. [laughs]
And everything that would have made a successfully business model I resisted. You know, I was covering the defense industry and profiteering and, you know, whenever I would talk to smart tech advisors, business advisors, people in the non-profit world that dealt with grants and stuff... all the ideas to turn it into bigger enterprise were, like, take money from defense contractors, which is exactly what I didn't want to do.
So some of these problems with the press were kind of built into the business model. And it's only more so in tech. That's kind of what got me thinking on the subject.
I went to go work for this startup and... they brought me on to be editor in chief for this news startup. It was called Demotix, I mention it in the introduction to the book. It got bought by Bill Gates and he destroyed it immediately... and in such a way that I thought was going to endanger people's lives. Because he had freelancer all over the place: Syria, Egypt, India, and Mali, which was just sort of kicking off then.
They wanted to do these cuts that would endanger journalists, so I resigned, and I got a lot of new feelings about... not just the state of journalism but the tech industry, which I had approached as an optimist and as kind of a booster.
I was that guy, sort of, reading Hacker News and trying to figure out how to optimize my SEO and all that kind of shit. You know, after seeing what happens when you deal with actual major players and things are really happening... it was uglier than I imagined it could even be.
It was much more like, I don't know, oil or finance or consulting or any of these trades that we sort of think of as harmful or prone to evil.
I started thinking about why. And that was the genesis of doing a deep-dive into... a safari into Silicon Valley.
So you kind of approached it as a journalist. You're already a journalist, you kind of approach it... this was something that I ran into a back and forth a bit, reading the book. Like, the degree of oh no, I'm actually doing this, I actually think I might make a billion dollars, or make the next the next big thing... or is this just I'm pretending I'm doing this, I'm LARPing at it, in the process of making a book?
You know, part of the... it was honestly both.
I feel like the answer is both, right?
It was honestly both, yeah. I mean part of doing the book was purging myself of that mentality, where you've got to be a getter and a winner and a hustler and all of these things. Which, you know, as a writer, you're expected to be.
When I think about some of the things I was paid to do as a staff writer at a newspaper only, say, ten years ago... more like twelve years ago at this point. It's been a while.
But, you know, I used to get paid to go sit in a courthouse for a couple of days every week and just see what cases were coming through, and see what was interesting. Like, what might be newsworthy.
My friends that have newspaper jobs don't have that kind of luxury and time anymore. Everything is built around the demands of the Internet, so we're finding out less about our government and how things work, about what's happening in our communities. And, you know, the things that I saw happening in the startup world were equally destructive.
I only mentioned it maybe in passing in the book, but one of the things I found myself doing as the editor in chief of a web site dealing in breaking news photos was coming up with a way to sort of automate copy editing. Like, make sure the sentences and captions that people were writing, and headlines for their news features that we would try to sell, had verbs, you know.
Cause it's like... so the tech people were like, can we build a thing to detect verbs. And I was like, wow, I'm automatic my old job. I'm trying to automate something I used to get paid for. And I felt pretty dirty about that because I knew that it would never replace the skills that I had when I was editing... that any good editor has. But it would be deemed sufficient as a replacement by capitalists. Because they don't really care about the craft of anything... whether something is communicated artfully. Or truthfully for that matter.
So, you know, both of those experiences made me think about what was happening with tech, and the way it was sort of taking over journalism. Colonizing journalism in a way. That was already kind of ratting in my head. But I was still sort of trying to cope with the reality of making a living, as things were sort of transitioning, you know.
I guess that the tone of the book... my guise in going to Silicon Valey was that I had another startup to pitch. That was my sort of... the way I was going to use to open doors, get meetings with people... about which I only had mixed success, but I still saw a lot of interesting things.
And so that guise was... it was a bit tongue in cheeck, the approach I used, because I already had some critical ideas about the place I was going. But also, you know, I was kind of doing when in Rome, right?
You know, nothing in the book is made up. If there is anything that's flight of fantasy, I definitely telegraph it or say so. It really happened that, like, one of the first ride shares I got into, this Lyft [to] the hostel in San Franscisco that picked me up: the lady starts giving me her startup pitch, you know.
It was sort of an attempt to capture what it was like in the gold rush there, too, which I feel like... are you in California? Remind me where you're based.
A cold-weather place.
So the whole gold-rush thing is kind of over now, in a lot of ways, but... the tech industry is sort of the permanent power that be in the Bay Area, and increasingly on the west coast.
I feel like there is this moment, and there is lot of stuff that you just said that I'd love to touch on. [laughs] I don't know how much time we have, but... one of the things that I think the audience here would be interested in is this – the nature of the journalism industry.
Because particularly some of our younger listeners may not even remember a time in which there was actual local news reporting in places. Which, you know, everything wasn't kind of built around clickbait.
I remember very clearly that kind of [journalism], because I kind of came out of the blogosphere. This is something that you and I had a little back and forth [about] on Twitter, like a week or two ago.
You know, I kind of come out of that blogosphere era. I was in my twenties, in the [George] W Bush administration, getting my news through that medium, people talking back and forth, mid to long form.
It feels like even at that time there was a sense that [the internet] was starting to take away from local journalism, something like Huffington Post, which – whatever our issues with it today – in the beginning was literally just an aggregator. They were just stealing other people's content and throwing it up there, just for clicks.
BuzzFeed [was] doing kind of similar things with, like, the listicle format... even before the financial crash, in the mid-2000s, you were seeing these tech companies, these web sites, that were just literally eating the heart out of journalism.
You know, I don't necessarily consider what I'm doing here to be journalism, but it's certainly... I spend hours and hours of preparation to make one podcast, obviously.
Yeah, that definitely is journalism. I mean I don't think there is much of a question about that. It's journalism... if you want it to be. I mean, in some ways the label is... because people don't have the memory of when there was, like you're saying, there was actually good local journalism all over the place in the US... It is more of a polarizing term.
I don't mean that – that don't even lines up with left-right opinions, but... you never know who's going to consider – if you say you're a journalist now, you never know how people are going to react.
I guess I use it because it describes my method.
But I think when the general public uses it... it dawned on me years and years ago that people didn't know the difference between what I was doing at a local newspapers and what Rush Limbaugh did, or somebody on TV. Whether they were on the local news or on Fox News.
People just... it's all sort of mysterious, and the number one question I would get – like, in a bar, or sometimes interviewing people – would be, like, how do you decide what to write? Do you get told what to write? People just don't have basic knowledge about what's involved.
That was even the case before there were things like the Newmark School of Journalism, which I still – you know, you're talking about these companies from that 2000s, early 2000s era that helped sort of destroy the media as we knew it.
That still kind of boggles my mind.
Well, of course there were issues with that kind of old model. When you have, you know, three television stations and, like, cable news, and when everything gets... goes through this capitalist enterprise.
So there are advantages to having a more... a variety of news sources. But there is a problem when there is no monetization model. Because everything gets filtered through a handful of giant companies that just suck up all the ad revenue, essentially.
I think there is a Marxist, a sort-of Marxist analysis to be applied to that. Having no functioning business model is a huge problem, because then you get the kind of crap [you get now]. People are just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks, now.
There is no consistency and nobody knows who to trust, and it's totally fragmented. I mean... more accurate to say, I think, that whatever the funding model is, whatever supports the media, or [whatever supports] a particular organization that's putting out information is going to sort of dictate what its biases are and the approach that it takes. And what it doesn't talk about, you know.
So a lot of the stuff in my book is stuff that the tech press, which was by and large funded by the tech industry and essentially functioned as a PR wing of the tech industry, did not talk about for fifteen years, while there was a post-Web 2.0 economic boom, I should say, around the industry.
So everything that people were hearing, all the things that I'd heard to help form [the] positive impression I had of what they were doing was filtered through advertising, essentially.
Absolutely. You run into this over and over again, and this is something that we kind of come back to on the show, at least a bit, is the sense that the... not only the medium is the message, but the people funding it. It's not so much that there's some explicit agenda that's being taken from on high, but the kinds of people who get to ask the questions and the kinds of questions they can ask, are ultimately controlled by the capitalist press, and by the people funding the organization.
Like, Jeff Bezos owning the Washington Post. There are brilliant people writing for the Washington Post. There are also some shitty people writing for the Washington Post. But certain questions are just never going to be asked by the Washington Post, because Jeff Bezos owns it.
It was... some stories were just all yellow, more or less.
It was a problem with the Graham family, which was the previous owner of the Washington Post. However, their side businesses were like, Kaplan Test Prep I think is really what paid the bills there... and that's not that consequential, ultimately.
When it comes to all the things... now, I guess you can say it's going to affect our coverage of education policy and this and that. Probably the ads that they would take from Lockheed, and still do, and the likes of those companies. I mean you can see the results in the Washington Post, but you're absolutely right, they have some of the best journalists in the business. It's just going to be surprising if at this point – not who I'd look to first to break a major story about Amazon, for instance.
They never would have been who I would have looked to first to break a major story about, like I said, Lockheed or something, because they know where their bread is buttered. In some ways it is a K street paper, so there's that. And you got to go through the same process with pretty much anything you're reading.
I did a journalism class before I left Portland and, you know, that's pretty much how we start. It's like, how do assess the sources of news that you're getting. And ownership is really the first place to look. Because [even] if it's not going to dictate what they're telling you about – necessarily, assuming there is any integrity to it, although depending on the ownership there might not be – it's definitely going to influence what they decide not to tell you about.
That's why, you know, the main challenge of staying well-informed now is how many different sources you need to consult. And there's a lot more, but a lot of them are lower quality.
Because, I argue, part of the reason is the influence of the tech industry.
And if there is another thing that's happened, it's been further consolidation as all of the family newspapers around North America have been bought up by conglomerates and those conglomerates in turn are under more pressure to do business with, like, Facebook, you know.
And everybody goes to Twitter to make sure they're getting traction among media and political people. So these platforms have tremendous power and they're just – aside from maybe a couple of dozen journalists who are sort of, for the most part, ekeing out livings here and there – they just don't get covered properly.
We're talking about companies that, you know... in Facebook's case: Facebook probably never, one example... I mean Amazon is tremendously powerful but Bezos doesn't seem this committed to swinging elections as Mark Zuckerberg and his partner in crime Peter Thiel [are], for instance.
Oh, don't worry, I hope we talk quite a bit about Peter Thiel here in a moment.
Because I think that's what people really are waiting for in this episode. We can't talk about tech fascism without talking about Mr Thiel there.
Is it /tiːl/ or /θiːl/? I actually don't know.
Right, it's /tiːl/.
I feel like there was that era of consolidation among newspapers when, like, Gannett started buying everything. I've never worked in journalism. I don't describe myself as a journalist just because I never did it professionally. I don't like to take the mantle of something, whatever... I didn't want to stand aside for that... whatever. But I've known people who worked for, like, the local hometown paper – who covered the storm that came through and knocked down power lines for fourty hours a week.
And there's this moment in which all that just shut down, and suddenly it was all taken from the Associated Press. It was all just... any kind of local reporting just completely disappeared.
This is a problem. So much of the nazi dipshittery is happening in local, in state legislatures, local council members and that sort of thing. So much right-wing shit gets passed because nobody is paying attention. Because there is just no local reporting going on anymore. And this is one of the big stories of the last ten or fifteen years, as far as I'm concerned.
It's just the degree to which there is just no oversight. There's nobody doing the, as you said, sitting in a courthouse for two days a week just to see what's going on.
There is nobody who has those kind of relationships, to sort of understand it. And that's why I really try to reach out. I actually contact quite a few journalists, in terms of... my kind of local journalists.
People reach out to me and I reach out to people. When there is a story that's on my radar, I'm like, hey, let me know if I can help you or whatever. Precisely because I have the subject matter knowledge of the big-picture stuff, but it's so much more useful if it comes from a local journalist in that way. And local journalists are often... they're working fifteen-hour days for five bucks an hour, effectively, trying to churn out this copy.
They don't have the time to do the big research that I've just made my time to do. I don't know, there's just such... that's not directly connected to the tech industry but it's definitely set the stage for when suddenly Facebook and Twitter and Amazon kind of come up, and Google, and just suck out all the advertising dollars.
[All the advertising dollars] just suddenly go to a handful companies. It just obliterated an already kind of dying thing. It wasn't dying out of a lack of need for it, it was dying because of the existence of... existing within in the capitalist system, ultimately.
Yeah, I mean that's the thing: if you look at – this is part of the argument that the book makes: if you look at what the tech industry does in a very systematic way... we spend a lot of time now just talking about what it's done to the media, which is how I experienced it, but it's done similar things to all kinds of industries.
Well, I mean... cab drivers. I'm reading this book, Super-Pumped, I don't know if you've read that...
Yeah, I heard about it.
I'm about half-way through and it's very good. I would put it as a companion piece to your book in a lot of ways, although it's much more focused on one company and [on] telling that story. It's a kind of similar narrative in some ways. Anyway.
But yeah, that's the story of Uber.
Yeah, all the way down the line to logistics, I mean, you mentioned retail earlier. Retail is definitely not the same as it used to be.
Well, even now, workers at Instacart...
Sorry to bring up the coronavirus...
No, that's alright.
Workers at Instacart are striking as we speak, on this day, because they're being fucked over by their bosses. Because they're being required to go above and beyond, because suddenly everybody needs carry-out and delivery.
Which is, I mean, yeah... that's great to see, frankly, that they're striking. I mean part of the reason these companies, this is whole gig economy thing was devised is a way to break labor. I talk about that in the book too.
I don't think I give away too much to say, the startup I was pitching as I was going around Silicon Valley – this would have been in, like, 2014, 2015 – was called Laborize. And the idea was, you would hire us to organize union and labor action at your competitors' company.
It's one of my favorite sections of the book, honestly.
It's absolutely... it's brilliant and absurd and I only wish you had been able to make it work, honestly. [laughs] Oh, man.
I mean, yeah, I got a mix of reactions.
Sort of like you, a lot of people didn't know what to make of it. The most common thing, positively, was, it's just crazy enough to work. Although if it had taken off and I'd become a billionaire, I suppose I would have somebody sort of dealing with my mikes and stuff for me when I did my podcast. [laughs] Right?
I wouldn't have to sit here and wait for the computer to update. I would just buy a new computer and then have an assistant tell me when it's time to start talking.
Yeah, and you'd probably wouldn't be taling to me. That would be the flip side. So two positives for you if you were a billionaire.
It is a delightful section of the book. I was reading that, I think, at three in the morning one night when I couldn't sleep. And I'm just like, dear Jesus, this is the height of tech industry absurdity. It felt like an absurdist fantasy. A thing that you would see in an Armando Iannucci movie about the tech industry, as opposed to something that you actually tried to to. And I mean that as the highest compliment. I mean that as the highest compliment.
Oh, thank you. That's why, I mean... that's the kind of journalism that I've always believed in. You know, journalism that didn't try to pretend like you're a transparent observer. That's contradicting the laws of physics. You always affect things when you're there, observing.
I decided that if my guise was to be a startup person I might as well do something deliberately provocate to draw people out. And what I saw as the number one issue around Silicon Valley, which as we discussed was what it's doing to labor in general, which is baaad. [laughs]
All very baaad.
I can't look around anywhere and say that Silicon Valley has had a good result for labor. Especially in the last twenty years.
Even, like... when I think about how much people complain about Microsoft Word, for instance. I mean it's something that would probably go into the benefits column, because look at how productive it helps you be. But... before Microsoft Word, a lot more people might have been paid to be typists, or to work word processors and printers.
Maybe you can say, well, we don't need those things. It's good that they are gone. But... is it?
It helped to get us this attitude to automating every aspect of labor. The one that made me very uneasy when we started talking. I can't really look at it and say that it's made the world better in my lifetime. So I'm not sure... if you went a hundred years how true it would be... either.
Well, you know... Microsoft Word makes it easier to make type that looks fine. That has, you know, funky fonts and everything. I remember, like, '95, 1995, when I first got a word processor. I could do italics. Because I used to write on an electric typewriter, right. And suddenly –
I had one of those too. Pretty cool.
It's so much easier to type on a computer keyboard...
We're old men now. We're talking about electric typewriters from when we were teenagers, right.
I feel like there is this element of... I agree, I definitely agree with what you're saying. You said it has been a mixed bag. But I think the paradox is that it makes it easier for someone independent to make something that looks professional, but then takes away both the labor that makes that happen and removes jobs, but also removes the oversight.
Like, anybody – take it from me – anybody can make a podcast that sounds okay, right?
That doesn't mean that that podcast is well-researched, [or] well-produced. Anybody can make a newsletter that looks pretty professional. That doesn't mean that the actual text that's in that newsletter has any kind of validity whatsoever. And so we have these sorts of guidelines in our heads – something that looks glossy and has a shiny finish is supposedly something that's care has been taken with. But that's just not necessarily true.
To a certain degree it was never true. I mean these things always had their biases. But it is one of those things that – if it were not for smart phones and the tech industry, this podcast wouldn't exist, and I wouldn't talk about the things that I talk about. At the same time, I wouldn't have to [laughs] if the nazis weren't doing the same thing.
Well, look, here's the thing.
There's nothing about the tech that allows you to do this podcast that wasn't there in 2002.
Or even probably in 1998. So this whole last... call it a bubble... I think it's more like a reordering of the economy that's happened since 2004, around the tech industry... all they've done is privatize tech that was pretty much open source. Just waiting for somebody to sort of develop it into more useable form for people.
So some companies got first-mover advantage. That's the thing about internet stuff, first-mover advantage becomes everything. It's not just an advantage, it becomes really key. And I guess not even having [the technology] first but having the financing. So it gives tremendous power to venture capital. And that's the world that Peter Thiel comes from.
You're going exactly where I was going. So please, tell... the last chapter of your book, the last chapter or two – it's been a little while since I've read it – is very much like... you kind of go on the Silicon Valley safari. And then you create your own startup for a while. And that kind of peters out.
And then really kind of dig into what I think this audience is going to be more interested in, and that is the explicitly fascistic parts of the tech industry.
There is no bigger bulls-eye on that mark than Peter Thiel, who – I'm just going to throw this tidbit in now – I was listening to Brett Weinstein's podcast. I don't know how much you follow the Intellectual Dark Web crowd.
I'm well aware of who he is and what he does, and I can't say I listen to hist podcast. [laughs]
Yeah, you shouldn't. You shouldn't.
You know, I hear it... it's remarkable to me that it's successful enough that I still hear about what's on this podcast.
Anway, what was...?
He interviewed James Damore. No not James Damore, James O'Keefe. He interviewed James O'Keefe on a recent episode.
OK. That's weird, they kind of look the same, now that you mention them.
Right, no, sorry, I just... my brain just kind of went... I'm sure he will bring James Damore on, except James Damore is kind of a nobody at this point.
He brings on James O'Keefe, it's... I could do a whole hour just talking about the nonsense in the podcast. There is a moment in which Weinstein says, like, oh yeah, you and I are both funded by Peter Thiel. Like, you and I both get money from Peter Thiel.
They kind of acknowledge it, they kind of both kind of nod, and then they just kind of move on. And it's like, no, this is more important than the rest of the bullshit that you guys are talking about. The fact that you both get money from Peter Thiel and you broadly agree on things and you just want to talk about optics for two hours? That's the fundamental thing. It's way more important than anything else you have to say.
For the audience who may not know, tell us who Peter Thiel is and tell us how awful he is.
Peter Thiel is an extremely wealthy man... now. He is a multi-billionaire. He's on the board of Facebook. He is...
Wasn't he one of the original PayPal guys, or do I have him confused with someone else?
Yeah, he was in a group called the PayPal Mafia, along with Elon Musk and Pierre Omidyar. PayPal is... working backwards is actually pretty good with Peter Thiel, because not only is he this Facebook billionaire who is affiliated with PayPal, big in Republican politics now... he was a key Trump supporter back in 2016, and before that he put Gawker out of business. People probably are familiar with that story at this point. He had funded a lawsuit in secret...
There is great Netflix documentary.
Yeah, the Netflix documentary is really good. I think it's only an hour, or ninety minutes.
It's like ninety minutes, yeah. It's a full documentary. It's worth it. It's worth your time.
And more importantly, they got the story right.
I mean it's pretty engaging to watch, but they got the story correct. Which I could easily have seen going wrong. They correctly focused on Thiel. So it you want to know a lot about why Peter Thiel is not a good person to be enemies with, go watch that Netflix documentary, because it shows how we connived and conspired to put Gawker Media out of business pretty much permanently.
Even the poor writers who were, like, semi-freelance... one guy wound up with a slow cooker and a tea kettle and a [inaudible? 37:23] after losing his job at Gawker because Peter Thiel put it out of business. In the bankruptcy proceeding and the legal proceedings that followed it, Thiel's representatives are basically trying to take this guy's slow cooker.
Also conspiratorial character, and more importantly... I mean, he is one of the key funders of that Intellectual Dark Web that you mentioned. ["Intellectual Dark Web"] is too nice of a term for it. People debate endlessly – and I'm not really too interested in getting into this – what is Neoreaction, what is Intellectual Dark Web, and all these semantics... alt-right, all of that stuff. Most of those terms were coined by people who they purport to describe.
Thiel is the key founder and funder – not founder but funder – of many tech-oriented fascist propaganda organizations.
Some of which were in the guise of startups. So I would even argue that PayPal is one of these companies.
One of the things I did for researching the book was go back and look at PayPal back in the late 90s, early 2000s. And Thiel brought to it this hardcore ideology that was partly derived from his reading of authors like Ayn Rand and partly derived from his reading of science fiction and PayPal was sort of like Bitcoin in its ideological conceptions.
It was an attempt to undermine the idea of publicly issued currency. It was an effort to privatize currency. Because it would advance what he was then calling a libertarian agenda. Although more recently he's saying he's not a libertarian. He won't really say what he is.
He's moved a little more towards Neoreaction from what...
That's what they're calling it, but what do they mean by that? And I do get into what they mean by that in the book.
Thiel, one of the web sites he was funding was this character Mencius Moldbug. His real name is Curtis Yarvin. He's sort of a first-wave, nineties-wave dotcom millionaire.
[He] made enough money to buy himself a nice property in San Francisco and sort of do nothing but blog... blog lots of fascist stuff. I can't say that he praised Anders Breivik, but he wrote a post condemning Anders Breivik for basically being too ineffective in advancing his neonazi agenda.
And this guy is friends with Thiel, has been funded by Thiel, and parties with Thiel. That sort of gives you an idea what Neoreaction means in their minds.
Yeah, Mencius Moldbug would absolutely be sort of on the radar of people that we would cover if... if we get that far, let's put it that way.
Yeah, so... that thread, that's initially what I tugged on to sort of start unraveling the fascist connections in Silicon Valley. It just so happens that Moldbug and Thiel was quite a shortcut because Thiel is really important in that scene, and he's been really important to advance those ideas and that agenda.
But he's certainly not the only one.
Another person I talk about in the book is Ray Kurzweil, who is never called a fascist. I don't believe he a fascist. But he is a eugenics promoter.
He is extremely libertarian in his ideology, and I guess has more of a utopian spin on a future that in a lot of ways looks very similar to what Thiel promotes.
And Thiel, you know... Kurzweil, his parents fled the Holocaust. He comes from a very prestigious family in terms of the kinds of people that they knew in Vienna and the connections that they maintained in New York. His academic credentials are pretty impeccable. I have a lot to quibble with his ideas, but I don't believe that he is a Hitler apologist.
I'm not so sure about Thiel.
Well, Kurzweil is more of a Singularitarian, right? He's more sort of...
Yes, he believes in the Singularity.
Yeah. I've read a couple of his books in the 2000s or whatever.
I talk a lot about the Singularity in the book. The short version is, it's a religious idea, essentially. Eventually our computers are going to get so good that they're... we're going to turn into gods and merge with them, and it going to be like the Matrix, or like Terminator, but we're Skynet, so it's good...
I think it's ridiculous, and I get into why I think it's ridiculous in the book.
I feel like there is this sort of soft Singularity...
This is an aspect of the ideology... there is a lot of different versions of it.
There is kind of the soft version of, like, at a certain point changes enough that we can't predict it from here, which... feels like a kind of reasonable sort of thing. But then that gets sort of smeared into this, like, "and then the entire universe is going to be built out of computronium." Sort of like Vernor Vinge style, like, sci-fi. "A billion years from now, the stars themselves will be calculating devices." This sort of thing.
Well, they both mean it literally, in that way of Vernor Vinge... who is this science fiction writer that really kind of coined the idea of a tech singularity. And that's the one that both Thiel and Kurzweil build on. And that's sort of how I connect them in the book. I mean they're also connected through their involvement in certain organizations related to promoting the idea of a singularity.
Although less so lately, because some of their mutual associations have become out and out fascists. I mean, you know, [they] flirted with this stuff called Neoreaction and really talk more like skinheads these days.
Well, a lot of... some of the fashy people I kind of follow came through that Neoreaction phase. I feel like it's less relevant in 2020 than it was in 2015 or so.
It is... it's both less and more relevant.
Friend of the pod, Elizabeth Sandifer wrote a very nice book, Neoreaction a Basilisk, which I would recommend to anybody who wants the deets on the Neoreaction crowd.
I don't know how to cover it, she took care of that for me.
She was very early on that and doing good stuff, so... yeah, I second that endorsement. But, you know, Thiel is a... he's very coy on certain questions that I don't think he would be able to be coy about were he not a billionaire who intimidates the hell out of people, because he's litigious.
Well, do you think...
You know, his...
Sorry, I keep interrupting you. I apologize. I'm just trying to...
No, that's alright. You got me worked up about Thiel. [laughs]
[laughs] No, no, that's right...
Go ahead, ask your question!
I feel like we could sit for like six hours and just, like, compare notes. One of the things that we run into, one of the things that I run into a lot of the time is, where does the money come from, from this.
You know, I've spent many, many, many hours listening to these people talk. In particular, I'm thinking about people like The Right Stuff, Daily Shoah, Fash the Nation, these kind of guys. And I guarantee you there's some money coming in from somebody. They're not just making money off of ten-dollar-a-month subscriptions, right?
The numbers just don't add up by any reasonable stretch of the imagination. They'll talk about, oh, we got a five thousand dollar donation from somebody. My thought was always like, there is some nazi dick who owns a car dealership who, like, has a few million dollars and throws them five grand every six months or whatever. And there are enough of those guys doing that.
Do you get the sense that Thiel or someone like Thiel... do you think that there is actually some billionaire out there feeding money into explicitly genocidal organizations, or explicitly...
Well, I can tell... speaking as a journalist...
Let's just... "allegedly" goes out upon all of this, because none of us want to be sued. This is purely speculation and opinion here. I apologize for putting you in that spot, Corey.
No, it's fine. I had... at one point in the research of my book I had a very crazy internet meme with the guy with all the pins up on the wall and the lines between them... I had something very much like that, and one of the reason I did end up honing in on Thiel so much is that a lot of the lines went back to Peter Thiel.
I can tell you as a journalist the kind of things that he's funded, what he's funded. And that's why I say I don't mind calling him one of the bigger promoters of fascist-friendly tech-focused stuff around. And a lot of it's under the guise of the Singularity stuff. A lot of it it's under the guise of Neoreaction or whatever terms you think are fashionable.
You scratch a lot of these people and you end up finding Holocaust deniers and Nazi sympathizers. And that was the thing that I realized about this guy Yarvin that Thiel was funding... the core of his ideology about which he spent untold thousands of words expounding on was that maybe the US supported the wrong side in World War II. And that's really what it all came down to.
Why Thiel would fund somebody like that, or multiple people who thought that way... it's really on Thiel to explain. His dad was not old enough to be a Nazi. He did work for a German mining conglomerate that was operating in South Africa mining uranium. And most German industry was dominated by the Nazi party during the war, and after the war wound up being run by people who were essentially picked by Nazis to be in the positions that they were.
The allies, you know, just kind of... they called it Denazification but they just kind of went along with who was in charge. [They were] trying to find the least compromised people, so we're told and so we thought, but I don't think it worked out that way in every case.
So when you say, does this seem like all these half-wit Nazis could be running successful internet businesses, enough to fund all their travel and their production and their output... I completely agree. I think at this point I don't think it's all Thiel's money. I don't think it's all the Mercer Family's money. That's another one you could mention.
They funded Breitbart, Steve Bannon, all kinds of shady garbage.
Or Eric Prince and...
Regnery is one that we know for a fact...
Regnery... I mean, it's like, take your pick. There is a lot of people, I mean this is what I think: there is a lot of Americans – we'll just keep it to Americans for now – who do think as Curtis Yarvin did.
There is a lot of people who agree with that basic idea that the US backed the wrong side of the Second World War. I think there's more of them than we were educated to believe there were, growing up.
I think there is a lot of members of the Bund who had kids, who were rich for one reason or another, and they fund this stuff. I mean I think it could be a spectrum of people. Some of them, for all we know, could be, like, stay-behind fucking Nazi networks who got smuggled out on rat lines and have fortunes in the States and South America. We don't know where the money is coming from. I mean that's the kind of thing that was going on in the 60s, 70s, throughout the postwar period.
There's newer generations in charge now, but when we see who took over in Bolivia in the recent coup there... I mean, it looks a lot... a lot of people pointed out how much like an 80s coup it looked like. [One of the coups] that the US, elements of US intelligence were involved in. Not to mention descendants of Croatian Nazis. And these are the kinds of networks, the kind of ideological networks, that support fascist propaganda today.
Thiel is particularly successful at promoting the kinds of things that he does. But he's just one character, he's one person that we know. He's famous, and he was famous before people really knew that much about his political beliefs. He was famous before he got involved with Trump. I think there's a lot of others that we don't know the names of and that are not famous.
Yeah, like, that's always the thing. It's like, there's a lot of... in left or even liberal circles, there is a lot of focus on, like, the Koch Brothers. Oh yeah, but they're the tip of the iceberg. Like, they're bad, let's not pretend they're not. But ultimately those are the names we know and there are a whole lot of names we don't know, at all different levels.
This kind of goes back to the local journalism thing. There are people working – not necessarily billionaries, but people pushing your local chamber of commerce to push certain kinds of policies. Your local state representatives and all that sort of thing.
It is... it does feel like this kind of consolidation of media, this consolidation of stuff into a handful of outlets that are just not interested in what's going on in Paducah, Kentucky or whatever – [the fact] that all news is national news now – does kind of contribute to this [problem].
Anything goes, until it gets bad enough that somebody with the ability to say something says something. Or ten years from now somebody does the deep dive and goes, like, oh yeah, there was some real shit going on there. But that's not really useful, and I feel like this is ultimately – again, not to put words in your mouth – fundamentally a failure of capitalism.
It's fundamentally just like... the capitalist system isn't working and in particular isn't working in terms of informing the public with regards to what's going on in your government... in anything that you care about in your life.
Yeah, well, we're certainly at a point [in] whatever evolution or devolution – or however you prefer you think about it – of capitalism where it's no longer in the interest of capital to have an informed public, or any kind of transparency in terms of corporate affairs. Increasingly, the business of the State, the public sector as well.
You know, yeah, it's harder to get away with a lot of this Nazi BS when there is a group of sort of watchdogs in every community looking out for corruption and things like that.
We just, to this extent that we have it – I can't say we don't have it anymore, because I still have a lot of friends who are sort of scraping by in local news. But it's not like what was even ten or fifteen years ago, and right now it's hard to see how we get it back.
Seems like everything it kind of tied up struggle against capital because everything that sustains the general public, the non-capitalist, the person who doesn't have connections to major industry except to the extent that they might work for it – is deprived of power and increasingly threatened by the State and threatened by the prerogatives of people are holding all the power.
So journalism is becoming more of a dissident activity. And it used to be considered something that was "the Fourth Estate." Like, another branch of government. Like, a vital function of this society and of democracy.
So the extent to which journalists have been forced to be dissidents, it's a measure of how fucked we are. Like, journalists...
Yeap. The fact that journalists are...
Like, I'm a working class person, I grew up poor, and I sort of eked, like, squeaked my way into newspapers, magazines, at a time when there were fewer and fewer working class people, fewer people of color, in the business.
You know, I can tell you most of the people who are famous in any capacity, or even [just] have staff jobs, to a certain point are [inaudible] any more after so many cuts and crises in the business – they're often not people who go out of their way to be opposed to the government. Who go out of their way to be trouble-makers. That's like the romantic positive stereotype of journalists in a lot of ways is: people who have an itch to be trouble-makers. But there's also a lot of starfuckers in there.
And, you know, even those kind of people now are in the position of being forced into being dissidents. Just by how much of a crackdown is coming from the Trump administration [and] the State in general. Not just in the US but all over.
Because capitalism is under threat and the survival of the power structures is under threat.
Absolutely, I agree. I feel like that's a... I know we're under kind of limited time. You and I could probably talk about these issues for long, long hours.
I do have to bounce in a minute but I'd be happy to come on and pick up where we left off some time.
No, no, definitely, I would love to have you back at some point in the near future. Is there anything else you would like to send out to the I Don't Speak German audience before we have to let you go?
Um, yeah, thank you for listening to programs like this, for one. Those of us who make them, you know, we do have a close connection with our audiences, but... they're often not big audiences, so the people that are doing the work to keep themselves informed of these kind of issues... pat yourselves on the back.
It's important to have people, whereever you are, that know about this stuff. Which doesn't mean you've got to splain stuff to everybody, be a dick, or whatever. But it's good what you're doing. And it is exhausting to keep informed of these kind of things, so... thanks! to your audience.
Yeah, you mentioned the book, Live Work Work Work Die
. If you do decide to buy it, after listening to this, go buy it from powells.com
, not Amazon. Because Powell's, my favorite book store back in Portland, is closed. They laid everybody off and closed. They say [it's] temporarily, because of coronavirus, but after you lay off that many people and close the store... I don't know they're going to come back, so throw a few bucks their way.
We'll put the link to Powell's in the show notes.
I also do... I'm about to do another episode of my show, which is News from Nowhere
, also on Patreon. I started a newsletter with my next guest on the show, Jason Wilson...
Friend of the pod!
...who is [a] Guardian journalist. We have a newsletter together that we just recently launched, called The End
, which is at Substack. So there's the book, which we mentioned, there is the pod, which is News from Nowhere on Patreon, and the new newsletter, which is on Substack, called The End, with Jason Wilson and myself.
So thanks a lot, Daniel.
Absolutely. We'll put all those links in the show notes. Thank you so much, Corey, for being on the show. And please go follow him... what's your Twitter? Is it @coreypein
All my website stuff you can find through that.
I would highly recommend both the newsletter and the book. I do not listen to the podcast because I'm not a Patreon subscriber, and I feel very embarrassed about that at this moment, but...
That's okay, I mean... we can sign up for each other. We can do a little logrolling here.
Blogrolling, pod... we could do some podrolling.
Let's give each other a few dollars a month to feed the Patreon dollars upwards. That's clearly the best way to do this.
Feed the VCs, yes.
[laughs] It is ironic. "Oh yes, let's complain about the tech industry; also my Patreon is..."
Well yeah, I feel very conflicted about this, as you might imagine. We can talk about that next time.
Absolutely. Anyway... thank you so much for being on. We would love to have you back at any time you want to come back. And I hope everybody enjoyed it. Thanks a lot, cheers, and we'll see you next time.
That was I Don't Speak German. Thanks for listening. We're on iTunes and show up in most podcast catchers.
You can find Daniel's twitter, along with links to pretty much everything he does, at @danieleharper
. You can find my twitter at @_jack_graham_
. Daniel and I both have Patreons, and any contribution you can make genuinely does help us to do this, though it also really helps if you just listen and maybe talk about us online to spread the word. If you'd like to give us stars and reviews on iTunes that would be appreciated too.