The Philosophy That Explains Why So Many Silicon Valley CEOs Are Always Playing Victim

A Stanford professor explains how tech titans channel obscure philosophies to convince us — and themselves — they’re being wronged

Closeup photo of Peter Thiel wearing a suit during an interview.
Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel visits “FOX & Friends” at Fox News Channel Studios on August 09, 2019 in New York City. Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

Adrian Daub is a professor of comparative literature at Stanford and the author of What Tech Calls Thinking: An Inquiry Into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley (FSG x Logic Books).

The tech industry is known for making the seemingly impossible possible — but its greatest trick may consist of somehow managing to reframe a billionaire class and massive conglomerates as victims. We probably don’t talk enough about how the industry pulls this off: Tech leaders have long been infatuated with thinkers who reverse the commonsense picture of how power in our society is distributed and how it operates. And we have largely gone along for the ride.

Examples of self-styled victimhood are dime-a-dozen in Silicon Valley. In May 2016, Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel revealed he had brought down the media company Gawker using an immense legal war machine. He put hundreds of people out of work in an industry not exactly lousy with jobs. It was widely assumed he had done so because Gawker had revealed he was gay, a fact that he had preferred to keep private. And yet, in his justifications, he cast himself (and other celebrities, including other Silicon Valley titans, targeted by Gawker’s admittedly freewheeling style of scoop) as a “victim” of Gawker, accused the company of “bullying people,” and said he “thought it was worth fighting back.” There were expressions of concern about Thiel’s actions, but one had to marvel at the colossal act of reframing by which Thiel had justified his vendetta.

This victimization complex was also at play when Elon Musk called a rescue diver “a pedo guy” on Twitter and then claimed it was, in fact, he who was misunderstood. And more recently, Vice in July published a conversation between several high-profile venture capitalists on the Clubhouse social network in which they complained that journalists had too much power to “cancel” people. It revealed how some prominent founders and funders think about journalism, but above all, it was striking how they conceived of themselves. What emerged was a picture of very powerful people who genuinely seemed to feel deeply powerless, very much in the way Thiel presented himself: always in danger of being canceled and hounded by a click-hungry media elite that destroys honest, hard-working millionaires’ lives without any accountability whatsoever.

This funhouse picture of who has power and who doesn’t extends to how many tech CEOs think about their own companies. California recently passed AB5, a bill that decisively narrows the scope of who counts as an “independent contractor,” to the effect that Uber and Lyft drivers are now clearly employees. The rideshare giants and their allies have exhibited a truly monumental petulance in opposing it. They hired several big PR firms to conduct opposition research, and before long, supposedly spontaneous attacks cropped up on social media by concerned Californians who portrayed the rideshare giants as the hapless victims of a powerful cabal of unions, academics, and politicians.

The optic of a multibillion-dollar corporation spending millions of dollars arguing it’s been treated unfairly by being forced to play by the same rules as other companies already reveals the enormous distortion of scale involved in arguments of this type. The idea that your company is being victimized by nefarious professors and union organizers goes further, however: The kind of thinking that allows this to happen first involves a wholesale reconceptualization of power.

Thiel and Uber have to convince themselves that, if looked at the right way, power in society doesn’t flow as common sense would suggest it does. In this way of thinking, people who — to ordinary understanding — seem as though they have little or no actual power secretly have loads of it; the person who has somehow made billions and has a speaking slot at the ruling party’s national convention in truth has none of it. Tech loves its philosophical references and its profound-seeming ideas. So when it comes to this curious, but deeply useful, distortion of scale and power relations, tech unsurprisingly has expended extensive intellectual resources to convince itself of its victimhood.

Who made the powerless so powerful? While tech magnates almost never invoke him directly, the idea that in society the strong are the real victims goes back to 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and his On the Genealogy of Morality. Christianity, Nietzsche argued, had managed the trick of telling the strong and powerful to aspire to the meekness and powerlessness of the people they had power over — to adopt, as he put it, a “slave morality.” Once Christianity had pulled this off, the weak and powerless were the true oppressors. The powerful were forced to understand their strength as sinful. Suddenly unsure of themselves and terrified of damnation, they had become the victims of a world-historic con.

Nietzsche proposed that exercising power wasn’t bad and that a moral system that said it was, well, that was unnatural and unhealthy. He wasn’t interested in economics; it was a question of morality for him. Ayn Rand applied this idea to places where it mattered to tech: to board rooms, to industries, to entire societies. Rand’s fiction works portray a world in which the strong are being hemmed in by “second-handers” who weaponize their own weakness, their own dependence on others, while the “makers” are forced to submit to regulation in penance for their own autonomy.

Rand’s influence is everywhere in Silicon Valley. A significant number of CEOs count themselves among her devotees (Travis Kalanick used to have the cover of The Fountainhead as his Twitter avatar). But her ideas circulate well beyond the fanboys. The idea of the CEO as the lone genius whose company is basically his work of art or the idea that the world is dominated by ossified institutions that hold down those who would disrupt them exist across the spectrum in the tech industry. They are ideas that centrally draw on Rand’s novels.

Let’s say you like this idea of the powerful being the true victims, but you’d prefer it to be even more counterintuitive. The thought of René Girard might be for you. A philosopher who taught in Stanford’s French department for decades, he’s not as widely read as Rand. But Thiel was one of his students, and Thiel has made spreading Girard’s gospel one of his missions. Girard is most famous for his theory of the scapegoat: All desire, Girard taught, is mimetic — meaning we desire things because others desire the same things. Culture displaces the inevitable conflict that arises as a result by redirecting reciprocal violence toward one single, shared target. In this way, the tension that exists within any social group is refocused onto a single individual.

His first impression of Girard’s philosophy, Thiel has said, was “that it’s crazy, it can’t be true.” Whether for Nietzsche, Rand, and Girard, the counterintuitiveness of this picture of society is part of the point. In an interview about the importance of Girard’s philosophy, Thiel said that its main utility lies in looking at a situation and being able to say “this is what’s really happening in this context.” In a way, this is how Rand and Girard both work for people like Thiel: Not only do they offer tech billionaires the opportunity to understand themselves as morally pure and uniquely persecuted, but they also get to feel superior for being the only ones who see through our societal illusions and understand this fact.

But where misappropriating Nietzsche allows you to feel prosecuted as a certain type of person, misappropriating Girard allows you to feel uniquely persecuted as just yourself. There’s a remarkable set of notes from one of Thiel’s seminars at Stanford where he essentially proposes that the CEO of a startup is something like a sacrificial lamb on which employees, competitors, and society at large get to project their own desires. A CEO is first apotheosized, held up as a uniquely gifted outsider, but then that same outsider status eventually makes him an easy target for a society looking to circle its wagons. “This dynamic recurs over and over again in the tech company founder context,” Thiel’s scribe, his co-author Blake Masters, notes.

Girard surely has fewer readers among tech CEOs than Rand. But some version of this complex explains how tech leaders understand their own exercise of power and the often shocking thin skin of figures like Kalanick or Elon Musk as well as the many public meltdowns that can make VC Twitter such a thrilling train wreck. It also explains tech’s dalliance with free speech absolutism and its susceptibility to reactionary arguments about cancel culture. A distorted relationship to processes of victimization is central to the sector’s way of doing business as well as explaining its business model to itself and others.

In a way, it’s not surprising that an industry used to getting its way would locate philosophies that buttress its attempts to evade regulation and generate positive PR. But two things stand out about tech’s adoption of this philosophical preoccupation with the victimization of the powerful. First, there’s the fact that we listen to tech leaders as thinkers in ways that are fairly unprecedented. My yoga instructor recently chose to “close out our practice” with some sage words from Steve Jobs — it’s hard to imagine Lee Iacocca being invoked in that way after a vinyasa flow. We live in a culture that defers to these ideas with exceptional credulity. That’s what makes this preoccupation so troubling: If rich people want to adjust their categories to deal with their inevitable cognitive dissonance, then that’s one thing. But what if they adjust ours in the bargain?

Second, these kinds of ideas are unlikely to endear the person expressing them to the broader public. At least when stated flat out, these ideas don’t make a tech thought leader’s goals and worldview any more plausible to most Americans. If anything, they frequently make them seem like aliens. You might agree with Thiel on investing and disruption, but when he gets to the part where billionaire CEOs are the true victims of the 21st century, you’ll have to be a very particular kind of person to find yourself nodding along. You would probably, in fact, have to be another tech CEO. VC Twitter is the spectacle of monumentally clueless individuals offering up galaxy brain takes before an audience largely amused by their ill-informed shots from the hip.

But, in the terms of the philosophy just explained, if you’re trying to position yourself as a tech CEO to watch, that’s not actually a bad thing. After all, the discourse of victimhood among big tech CEOs has “one versus the many” as a main topic. But it also practically tends to pit the one versus the many — the one having the opinion versus the many who point out how risible that opinion is. If arousing opposition is the mark of the truly correct, being dunked on online is perhaps the true mark of a thought leader.

The compulsion toward thought leadership — it’s part of self-positioning and marketing for aspiring unicorn wranglers — basically encourages a readiness to charge out of the gate with dumb opinions and then make a big to-do about it when those opinions get predictably slapped down. As Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, puts it: Smart kids are consistently unpopular “because there is something else [they] wanted more: to be smart.” To be different, to be made a target of by others, functions as the secret sign of an aristocracy of ostracism. There are entire discursive spaces being set up for this kind of performance of self-victimizing counterintuitiveness—the right-leaning online magazine Quilette, which may now be the most prominent example, only got there first.

For an industry with an undeniably huge impact on how we live, work, and even think, there is an obvious problem with adopting a philosophy just because it allows the leaders of that industry to think of themselves, against all the evidence, as oppressed. But the issues go beyond that. Due to counterculture cachet and the messianism of figures like Jobs, we take the leaders of this industry way more seriously as intellectual and prophetic voices than we would, say, the CEO of a pharmaceutical company. Their inability to see power structures as they really are very quickly becomes our own.

Professor at Stanford University, works on intellectual history, gender, politics. WHAT TECH CALLS THINKING out in October 2020.

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