The Libertarian Imaginary in an Age of Austerity

This fascinatingly weird essay by Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal and Facebook’s first outsider investor (not to mention founder of the most sinister tech startup you’ve (n)ever heard of – let’s sidestep the ideological tension involved in being a leading libertarian making money from developing the infrastructure for a ‘big data’ security state) offers interesting insights into the shifting fortunes of libertarian politics:

As one fast-forwards to 2009, the prospects for a libertarian politics appear grim indeed. Exhibit A is a financial crisis caused by too much debt and leverage, facilitated by a government that insured against all sorts of moral hazards — and we know that the response to this crisis involves way more debt and leverage, and way more government. Those who have argued for free markets have been screaming into a hurricane. The events of recent months shatter any remaining hopes of politically minded libertarians. For those of us who are libertarian in 2009, our education culminates with the knowledge that the broader education of the body politic has become a fool’s errand.

Indeed, even more pessimistically, the trend has been going the wrong way for a long time. To return to finance, the last economic depression in the United States that did not result in massive government intervention was the collapse of 1920–21. It was sharp but short, and entailed the sort of Schumpeterian “creative destruction” that could lead to a real boom. The decade that followed — the roaring 1920s — was so strong that historians have forgotten the depression that started it. The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.

Given how ignorantly recalcitrant these ‘constituencies’ (i.e. most of the population) Thiel has become rather pessimistic about the prospect of his libertarian ideals finding social expression. So given his pessimism about a reversion to the class politics of the 1920s (presumably his ideal solution were it not for democracy and the fact that the vast majority of the populace would find his politics abhorrent) he’s looking elsewhere in his mission to “make the world safe for capitalism”:

(1) Cyberspace. As an entrepreneur and investor, I have focused my efforts on the Internet. In the late 1990s, the founding vision of PayPal centered on the creation of a new world currency, free from all government control and dilution — the end of monetary sovereignty, as it were. In the 2000s, companies like Facebook create the space for new modes of dissent and 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. The limitation of the Internet is that these new worlds are virtual and that any escape may be more imaginary than real. The open question, which will not be resolved for many years, centers on which of these accounts of the Internet proves true.

(2) Outer space. Because the vast reaches of outer space represent a limitless frontier, they also represent a limitless possibility for escape from world politics. But the final frontier still has a barrier to entry: Rocket technologies have seen only modest advances since the 1960s, so that outer space still remains almost impossibly far away. We must redouble the efforts to commercialize space, but we also must be realistic about the time horizons involved. The libertarian future of classic science fiction, à la Heinlein, will not happen before the second half of the 21st century.

(3) Seasteading. Between cyberspace and outer space lies the possibility of settling the oceans. To my mind, the questions about whether people will live there (answer: enough will) are secondary to the questions about whether seasteading technology is imminent. From my vantage point, the technology involved is more tentative than the Internet, but much more realistic than space travel. We may have reached the stage at which it is economically feasible, or where it soon will be feasible. It is a realistic risk, and for this reason I eagerly support this initiative.

My fear is that for all his seemingly earnest belief in these sci-fi utopias (it’s hard not to imagine Thiel watching Elysium and siding with the space station’s elite) the likely implications of his politics and influence are much more terrestrial. He’s funding ‘security robots’ which, though fairly innocuous in their current incarnation, could certainly herald something more sinister if viewed with even a fraction of Theil’s undoubtedly imaginative futurism:

RoboteX was founded in 2007 and creates robots without the use of government funding. Its line of “Avatar” robots are meant to help with security, sometimes in situations that could be dangerous for humans. The website lists examples such as serving papers to a dangerous individual, entering hostage situation, patrolling, investigating suspicious packages, and more.

The company also has a line of robots for the home and office that offer its own form of roving security system. You attack an iOS device to the robot, which you can then remotely control to survey the house on your behalf.

The robots also come with a line of accessories, such as a command center, carrying case, manipulator arm, and stabilizers for rough terrain. With the manipulator arm, the Avatar II almost looks like a tiny NASA Curiosity rover.

Perhaps more worrying is the deployment of his security and technology firm. Given Thiel is on record enthusiastically opining that “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible” it’s hard to imagine that he had any qualms in principle about this operation, nor that he would about similar work in future. After all he seems truly committed to the mission of ‘making the world safe for capitalism’.

It gets worse: the technologies and know-how acquired over years of spying on suspected foreign terrorists and threats were turned to private, political use against US citizens. In what became known last year as the “Chamber-Gate” scandal, Palantir was outed by Anonymous as the lead outfit in a private espionage consortium with security technology companies HBGary and Berico; the groups spent months “creating electronic dossiers on political opponents of the Chamber through illicit means.”

According to ThinkProgress, Palantir “may have used techniques and technologies developed under military contracts in their pro-Chamber campaign.”

Thiel’s Palantir and its two intelligence contractor partners—collectively named “Team Themis” after the Roman goddess of law and order—proposed to the Chamber’s lawyers a plan that involved illegal cyber-espionage against the Chamber’s enemies, including targeting activists’ families and children. Among those targeted: ThinkProgress, union leaders, MoveOn, Brad Friedman and Glenn Greenwald, whose support for Wikileaks reportedlyrankled Chamber member Bank of America.

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