Thiel is in one sense a caricature of outsized villainy: he was the only major Silicon Valley figure to put his weight behind the Trump presidential campaign; he vengefully bankrupted a website because he didn't like how they wrote about him; he is known for his public musings about the incompatibility of freedom and democracy, and for expressing interest -- as though enthusiastically pursuing the clunkiest possible metaphor for capitalism at its most vampiric -- in a therapy involving transfusions of blood from young people as a potential means of reversing the ageing process. But in another, deeper sense, he is pure symbol: less a person than a shell company for a diversified portfolio of anxieties about the future, a human emblem of the moral vortex at the centre of the market. [...]
If I wanted to understand the extreme ideology that underpinned Thiel's attraction to New Zealand, he insisted, I needed to understand an obscure libertarian manifesto called The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State. It was published in 1997, and in recent years something of a minor cult has grown up around it in the tech world, largely as a result of Thiel's citing it as the book he is most influenced by. (Other prominent boosters include Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, and Balaji Srinivasan, the entrepreneur best known for advocating Silicon Valley's complete secession from the US to form its own corporate city-state.) [...]
Reluctant to enrich Davidson or the Rees-Mogg estate any further, I bought a used edition online, the musty pages of which were here and there smeared with the desiccated snot of whatever nose-picking libertarian preceded me. [...]
The book's 400-odd pages of near-hysterical orotundity can roughly be broken down into the following sequence of propositions:1) The democratic nation-state basically operates like a criminal cartel, forcing honest citizens to surrender large portions of their wealth to pay for stuff like roads and hospitals and schools.
2) The rise of the internet, and the advent of cryptocurrencies, will make it impossible for governments to intervene in private transactions and to tax incomes, thereby liberating individuals from the political protection racket of democracy.
3) The state will consequently become obsolete as a political entity.
4) Out of this wreckage will emerge a new global dispensation, in which a "cognitive elite" will rise to power and influence, as a class of sovereign individuals "commanding vastly greater resources" who will no longer be subject to the power of nation-states and will redesign governments to suit their ends.
The Sovereign Individual is, in the most literal of senses, an apocalyptic text. Davidson and Rees-Mogg present an explicitly millenarian vision of the near future: the collapse of old orders, the rising of a new world. Liberal democracies will die out, and be replaced by loose confederations of corporate city-states. Western civilisation in its current form, they insist, will end with the millennium. "The new Sovereign Individual," they write, "will operate like the gods of myth in the same physical environment as the ordinary, subject citizen, but in a separate realm politically." It's impossible to overstate the darkness and extremity of the book's predictions of capitalism's future; to read it is to be continually reminded that the dystopia of your darkest insomniac imaginings is almost always someone else's dream of a new utopian dawn.
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