Published May 8, 2019
Mason Masters is a writer, reader and commentator from Australia. He has many thoughts and you can follow them on Twitter with his handle @masondemaistre
“Count Tolstoy preached inaction. It seems he had no need. We “inact” remarkably. Idleness, just that idleness Tolstoy dreamed of a free conscious idling that despises labour, this is one of the chief characteristics of our time.” ― Lev Shestov
Peter Thiel should be king, if not of America then of the world. With a proven track record and no sign of slowing down, the overthrow of democracy would only work with someone like him at the helm, or at least him along with a board of similarly strident compatriots. It’s hard not to appreciate the man if you watch interviews of him, but it is Zero to One, his startup manifesto, that leaves no doubt that Peter Thiel should rule with an iron fist.
Every book is a story of its author. We might have some pretence of neutrality but the fact is that what the author writes reflects their hopes, their dreams, their neuroses and their fears. In Zero to One Thiel manages to distil his being into a short tract and few books manage to portray their author with such succinctness. His vision that helped create companies like PayPal and Palantir is clearly laid out, but the advice given in the book can be applied to many other aspects of life. It’s a book about a mindset. It’s a book about overcoming idleness. Compare it to a trio of other books that attack the question of work and economy from completely different angles: Bullshit Jobs, Utopia for Realists and The War on Normal People. The first, by David Graeber, is a drawn-out rant against the role of work in everyday life; the second, by Rutger Bugman, er, I mean Bregman, is a smug spiel of ‘facts’ promoting utopia; the third is by current US political wunderkid, Andrew Yang, and would be a terrifying read were it not for his uppity optimism. These books share an idealism rooted in the same progressive hunt for salvation, but unlike Zero to One they ultimately fall short of providing anything practical for the reader.
In among the larger narratives of each book they all touch on UBI, or Universal Basic Income, an idea whose time has supposedly come. What each of these books brings to light is different sticking points along the road to this goal and the consensus reality they push is the eventual progression to full leisure capitalism. On the surface of it the idea sounds amazing. Free money just for being alive? Sign us up. As Graeber says in his book, “Freedom is our ability to make things up just for the sake of being able to do so.” But is this the case? If everyone receives a government handout, it isn’t hard to see freedom as slavery, because there is always a catch. These three books venerate the freedom of UBI, and there are countless other books in this vein (comparable to the non-stop publication of books on climate change). Where are the books against it? The dominant conversation is pro-UBI, though there are many reasons not to follow it. Thiel says in his book that, “If you can identify a delusional popular belief, you can find what lies hidden behind it: the contrarian truth.” It is time to look behind the facade.
On the face of it UBI seems like socialism. However, there are number of leftist reasons to demur from handing out cash, and the arguments have been raised by fiercely left-wing publications like Dissent and The New Inquiry. It isn’t right-wing either, for obvious reasons, including the incompatibly of freedom and equality (perhaps this is why what is ostensibly an equalizing agenda is pushed as “freeing” by proponents). But the consensus seems to be that it is inevitable, that we must do it. Why? Quite simply UBI is a neoliberal desire, one that capitalism (and consumerism) requires in order to continue indefinitely, something the powers that be obviously would prefer. The scheme is really no different to many other cash injections. For example, during the global recession in 2008 the Australian government handed out cash to a large chunk of citizens with the express goal of boosting the economy to stay afloat. Similarly, in among many other factors, introducing a First Home Buyers’ Grant pushed up house prices, actually harming those entering the market. Much like rent controls UBI is popular from a political standpoint because it provides early bonuses with the negative (and drastic) side-effects coming much further down the track. Left and Right should be against UBI. Fundamentally, if people from both sides (but not at the extremes) like an idea, then it’s probably going to help the status quo.
The problems are poverty and perceived inequality. The three books mentioned above all view the world through this lens, where the majority are suffering and major philanthropic policy changes, UBI being the main one, are the only way forward. Funnily enough, what each of the books sees as the problem is the solution. Reading Zero to One in the milieu of the current moment of Yangism and open borders and empathy for the other is a shock to the system because it provides the tools for a real future. “Positively defined, a start-up is the largest group of people you can convince of a plan to build a different future,” says Thiel early in his book and that is the game everyone in politics is playing. While progressive policies are convincing, they only appear so because of their rhetoric. We need substance and so a very different plan.
Bullshit Jobs is a great example of the adage that all non-fiction books should be a blog post. It spawned from an essay that Graeber wrote back in 2013 that took nine minutes to read. Obviously, a publisher saw this as an opportunity and Graeber saw it as a paycheck and he spun it out further. The main conceit is that bullshit jobs (defined as “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case”) have proliferated under capitalism and we all suffer for it. The solution is UBI and the fact that a self-described anarchist wants a government mandated support system is the punchline of an overdrawn joke.
Most people don’t like work and never have, but Graeber takes this bar chat to the extreme. The book is packed with anecdotes from people who sent in their own stories of terrible work conditions in response to the original essay. Most of these stories are from people who cry about the meaninglessness of their jobs, even as they use that paid time to engage in leftist activism or learn new skills. To depict those respondents, here is one LARPer: “My one small act of rebellion is wearing a black-and-red-star pin into work every day—they have no fucking idea!” You get the picture. The rest of the book is packed with various whataboutisms and strange Freudian tangents where the workplace is linked to BDSM and necrophilia. What the book does show is that while some bullshit comes from the public sector and university administration roles, there is a smattering of nonsense in the private sector. Yet at the same time the biggest private companies today employ far fewer people than the biggest companies of a few decades ago (See: The War on Normal People). The section on financial institutions is no doubt correct, yet even parasites have a role to play in the great scheme of things. Frankly the book come across as overcooked hyperbole. Work sucks; we know.
It’s not that the book is wrong per se, it’s that the attitude is faulty. When have men ever not worked and hated every moment? Thiel is insistent that the market will provide, but like divine grace you must be willing to grasp it and create your new future. To a degree Thiel agrees with Graeber when he says, “Bankers make money by rearranging the capital structures of already existing companies. Lawyers resolve disputes over old things or help other people structure their affairs. And private equity investors and management consultants don’t start new businesses; they squeeze extra efficiency from old ones with incessant procedural optimizations.” The difference is he tells the reader to do something about it. This is precisely what the people who wrote to Graeber did when they used their “free time” to move into more meaningful work. And if a job is bullshit because a company needs to recycle money or some other hidden motive beyond efficiency, then it is still playing a role. It is a strange idea that we should be provided the human right of a guaranteed income and not the human given of a job. It will all wash out, much like how those in the top 1% of individuals or companies never remain there. There is constant churn, but anthropologists like Graeber seem to judge everything on snapshots of history. Thiel on the other hand makes it clear that progress is messy evolution that only shifts when you work at it.
Rutger Bregman calls himself a possibilist. Utopia for Realists is Pinker-esque in that it is a succession of facts that show how good we have it and how easy it would be to implement three big policies: a shorter work week, a universal basic income and open borders. His book is also extremely boring and oddly smug. To get a feel one need only watch this interview. He’s also that guy who pulled a gotcha on Tucker Carlson. And the totally-not-a-neoliberal shill who was invited to Davos. Surely a possibilist engages with a wide range of outcomes, but Rutger seems more of an inevitablist.
There is nothing in this book we haven’t seen before and that’s what makes it such a slog. The litany of studies, quotes and historical facts told with this shit-eating grin makes it a difficult book to finish (and has anyone ever quoted Oscar Wilde so much?). Compare it to Zero to One which is shorter, punchier and provides more genuine insights and new ideas than all three books combined. The major thrust of Thiel’s book is that what is most important is something that is hidden, secret from the majority. What Rutger proposes is “common sense” in that Keynes was talking about the shorter work week decades ago and we had open borders before World War One. That is, this has been done before. This makes Rutger a hypocrite when he envisions a future based on re-hashed ideas, with another example of his hypocrisy displayed when on the one hand decries GDP as a measure of wealth, while on the other insisting that everyone must get their share of said wealth. Thiel conversely says precisely what he means, and that is that we must strive to create. “If everything worth doing has already been done, you may as well feign an allergy to achievement and become a barista” he says, and what Rutger proposes is precisely that, to level the playing field to such a degree that we are happy to concede to average. His proposals are merely repetitions of the past.
The core of the book rests on a soft belief in being nice to people, but that belies the true neoliberal sentiment underneath. If we have a shorter work week, that means we get paid less. With a growing population all looking for jobs, Rutger is pushing for the gig economy where people share jobs, but unfortunately companies won’t pay individuals the same for less. If we have UBI that means business as usual. The Australian examples above show why a UBI benefits GDP growth, and how inflation would occur with consumer handouts. A UBI also doesn’t make workers more competitive because those motivated to work will still need to have their best foot forward in a world of fewer jobs. With open borders, this makes it harder again with shrinking margins on all sides. This is the most absurd proposition by Rutger, and one Thiel is against when he says, “At the macro level, the single word for horizontal progress is globalization—taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere.” Rutger is a globalist: he wants the American Dream for all. Thiel is a technologist and he posits that, “Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition all profits get competed away.” Reducing work hours, giving away money and pouring in immigrants increases competition, and rich countries can wave bye-bye to any idea of profits, in this case higher standards of living.
Into this space stepped Andrew Yang. Yang is of course a hopeful 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate and his book The War on Normal People is essentially his manifesto. You can look on his campaign site for the specific policies, but the book (and his media engagements) is his raison d’etre. What the book reveals is that Yang has a Messiah Complex.
The book starts off with Yang describing how he was bullied at school. It then touches on his work as an entrepreneur before setting the apocalyptic scene that Yang sees as the future—for America, at least. One can’t help but feel that Yang is compensating for something and his actions show that he wants to stand up for the little guy. The book itself is a good read when it gets into the gritty facts about the near future and work, and Yang is possibly better read and more experienced than both the other authors, but again his ideology bumps into Thiel’s. Yang, as a bullied nerd, wants to help “normal” people. Yet Yang is one of those CEOs that Thiel laments when the latter says, “…everyone needs to know exactly one thing that even venture capitalists struggle to understand: we don’t live in a normal world; we live under a power law.” The top 20% own 80% of the wealth, and so on. This is what Yang does not comprehend for all his good intentions. He is also a techno-pessimist in that while Thiel believes we will work in conjunction with robots and AI, Yang explicitly wants to yield.
There is one point in the book where Yang revels in a dystopian reality for a near-future America. He thinks it is too late for us and we must jack ourselves in to the work singularity. But Zero to One is about technological judo: how do we create new work and opportunities from technology? “There simply aren’t enough resources in the world to replicate old approaches or redistribute our way to prosperity,” says Thiel and yet this is precisely what Yang envisions with his promise of $1000 for every citizen every month. Yang prides himself on looking at the facts, but no UBI trial is based in the real world and none can be extrapolated to a whole nation. What Yang truly wants is to placate the masses, and he says it openly. He wants a social credit system. He wants cash handouts to halt unrest. But the only proven method to alleviate poverty is technological innovation, not redistribution. For all his nerdy hope and glee, Yang falls short. Thiel dismisses both Luddites and Futurists when he says, “…computers are complements for humans, not substitutes. The most valuable businesses of coming decades will be built by entrepreneurs who seek to empower people rather than try to make them obsolete.” This is what normal people need to hear: that there are those willing to risk it all and make life worth living through new avenues of human endeavour.
“For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”
The rich, the truly rich, do not love money. Those that spend money, hoard money, focus on the money, and only care about making sure everyone has enough money are those that love money. The rich make their money go to work. Yang lies when he says, “…poor people tend to be much more careful with their money than rich people.” That is simply not borne out by the evidence. For all the supposed ease of UBI that these authors espouse, Graeber himself refutes it when he says, “The moral of the story is that when a profit-seeking enterprise is in the business of distributing a very large sum of money, the most profitable thing for it to do is to be as inefficient as possible.” Governments are still profit seeking enterprises, and nothing would clog the system more than endless immigrants, the bureaucracy of a Freedom Dividend or Social Credit and the hassle of numerous part-time jobs. For everyone to benefit we cannot waste time going after the money.
The number one problem with our world is the immense complexity at play. This renders every solution to every problem inert, stillborn at moment of conception, destined to be the play things of over-intellectualised and over-socialised pseuds. Thiel goes against these men and their prophecies of a heavenly realm when he says: “Religious fundamentalism, for example, allows no middle ground for hard questions: there are easy truths that children are expected to rattle off, and then there are the mysteries of God, which can’t be explained. In between—the zone of hard truths—lies heresy.” UBI and similar policies are the easy, inevitable truths that these new proselytizers spout. The mysteries of God are why we are so much better off without ever having planned it. Rutger calls UBI “… the capitalist road to communism” and he isn’t wrong, but that is not a road we haven’t travelled, and it is not a road to the future. It may be heretical to progressive and neoliberal thought, but the way forward will only happen when strong men search for the truth.Towards the end of Zero to One Thiel talks about how to create a startup team, particularly in regards to the CEO. He does not think the CEO should be an obvious salesman, and says, “All salesmen are actors: their priority is persuasion, not sincerity.” This sentiment sums up the three authors of the books discussed. They are salesmen. They are trying to sell you a lie. Graeber is a grungy hippie trying to get you to come to his retreat and drop out of society. Rutger is a slick car salesman trying to upsell you on the latest SUV with all the amenities. And Yang is probably the most insincere because he’s the banker selling you a loan, all smiles and nerdy slogans while he’s exchanging your future for the present. Only Thiel is the genuine CEO, the guy who has a true vision for each member of his team, which is all of us. Or it could be, if he were king.