Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
As libertarianism has radicalized, some of Silicon Valley's biggest names are turning toward fascism

As libertarianism has radicalized, some of Silicon Valley's biggest names are turning toward fascism

Author Jonathan Taplin discusses the arcanely extreme political views of Elon Musk and Peter Thiel and why they should matter to the rest of us

We’re living in a time between times, a moment of dramatic technological change when the future is up for grabs. With the right kinds of policies, humanity is on the cusp of ending or significantly diminishing perpetual challenges of our species like hunger, climate disruption, and poverty. But if we make the wrong decisions, we will be handing over our future to people whose first priority is themselves—oligarchic billionaires who care more about achieving eternal life and exploring other planets than they do about affordable housing and ending diseases.

The terrible irony about the battle for the future is that it’s being waged by people who believe in a century-old failed ideology that goes by a number of different names. Futurism, libertarianism, and technocracy are some of the names by which it’s known. What we should be calling it, however, is fascism.

If you’re unfamiliar with the history of 20th century fascism, hearing someone today apply the term to people like Elon Musk or Peter Thiel may seem like an exaggeration. It’s not, however, especially because both of these men have direct connections to the original fascism. Theil, in particular, has explicitly written that “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”

Today’s modern-day robber barons have invested in political parties and candidates in the United States and other countries, but they have even bigger ambitions than just controlling who wins and loses elections. They don’t just want to rule the next 20 years; they want to control the next 200 years.

I won’t lie: The ideas and ideologies we’ll be exploring in the next several episodes are frightening and often extremely arcane. But it’s important to understand what we’re up against.

That’s why I’m pleased to be joined in this first episode by Jonathan Taplin, he’s a former professor of journalism at the University of Southern California. Before that, he was a vice president at Merril Lynch, and before that, he was a filmmaker and music producer who worked with legends like Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese. Instead of talking about all these impressive accomplishments, however, we’ll be discussing his new book, “The End of Reality: How Four Billionaires are Selling a Fantasy Future of the Metaverse, Mars, and Crypto,” which I strongly encourage you to purchase.

Audio Chapters

00:15 — Introduction

11:31 — Libertarian radicalization is directly related to the rise of fascism

15:18 — Mark Andreesen, a far-right billionaire who's mostly unknown to the general public

25:32 — "Transhumanism" and the fascist imagination

34:11 — Why "fascism" is an accurate descriptor for people like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel

47:05 — Why the U.S. left must create a grand democratic vision of the future


The transcript is automatically generated from the audio and may not be entirely accurate. It is provided for convenience only.

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: It's really good to have you here today, Jonathan. Welcome to Theory of Change.

JONATHAN TAPLIN: Good to be here, Matthew.

SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, first let's name the four billionaires that you are talking about in the book here before we get started with anything else,

TAPLIN: Elon Musk, [00:03:00] Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Andreessen, and Peter Thiel.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. And how representative are these four men of the Silicon Valley sort of oligarch class, if we can call them that, or as you call them, the technocrats.

TAPLIN: Well, they are certainly at the top level of the net worth. Obviously, Elon Musk is the richest man in the world. Andreessen Thiel and Zuckerberg are all billionaires not millionaires.

And they controlled some of the most important companies in this country. So, I mean, in that sense, I think they rank at the very top. They do tend to be much more kind of anarcho-libertarian than a lot of leaders in Silicon Valley. [00:04:00] But that's something that we can get into later.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Okay. Well, and actually the first chapter of the book is about libertarianism and techno libertarianism.

I was really pleased to see that you did that because I think that, a lot of people, especially in the business press. They don't have much of an understanding of politics and they tend to report on business as just, well, this guy did a thing and this company did some stuff.

And it's, very shallow and it's not giving the readers the bigger context and you are definitely trying to do that.

TAPLIN: I was shocked that there's a new biography by a very well known biographer, Walter Isaacson, that just came out on Musk. And it was exactly what you described. He, obviously, he's like the kid in Almost Famous.

He all of a sudden finds himself on the private jets with [00:05:00] all the beautiful girls and probably drugs, although I don't know if he takes them, but and he's just like, oh, wow, gee whiz. And, he treats Musk as if he's some kind of modern day, bipolar, pre epic Thomas Edison. Which is not what he is, uh, Thomas Edison made inventions that helped the world.

The electric light and the phonograph were just things that ordinary people could take advantage of. But Elon Musk makes automobiles that cost 100, 000 that are very good for, very rich people who want a virtue signal that they care about the environment. And he makes very expensive rockets, which the government pays him a 30% gross profit on for every launch and he makes satellite systems that he sells to other countries like [00:06:00] Ukraine and then continues to make independent decisions as to where they can work and where they can't work. And, now he wants to put a chip in your brain. So, I mean, these guys are not.

They come from a, kind of view that, uh, as Thiel has said, democracy and capitalism are not compatible. And so in that sense, they're on the side of capital. And quite frankly, as the head of OpenAI admitted, if their vision succeeds, the government will have no choice but to give everybody money.

Universal basic income because most of the jobs will be taken by artificial intelligence and robots,

SHEFFIELD: and it's important to note that the idea [00:07:00] of a universal basic income like that was a replacement for welfare by Milton Friedman, the libertarian ideologue economist. So that's been kind of the objective, irrespective of whether AI even existed or not. It certainly wasn't around in the 1970s to any real degree.

TAPLIN: Matthew, can I ask you a question? Yeah. Can you imagine any Republican Congress putting forth the notion of universal basic income today?

SHEFFIELD: Not, well, not right now,

TAPLIN: look, I mean, it's obviously Peter Thiel wants, and it's obviously Mark and Andreson wants it, and certainly Mark Zuckerberg wants it because why else would anyone be on the metaverse for 8 hours a day, which is his business plan unless. They were sitting at home with nothing to do. Yeah,

SHEFFIELD: no, it's, true. And,[00:08:00] and it's funny because this whole idea of the, this universal basic income that, and trying to get people to live in virtual reality and, just buy whatever the billionaires are selling to them.

When you tune into more sort of, lowbrow right wing media, like Alex Jones or like a lot of Fox News, they act as if the people who are pushing this stuff are left wing. And, because like they'll talk about oh, they want us to eat bugs and to, have our, and to sit at home and watch porn all day.

And it's like, the people doing that are on your side, like, those are your benefactors. It's their idea to do this.

TAPLIN: Well, look, I think, there are two quotes at the beginning of, my book, which are epigrams. One is from the Yale professor, Timothy Snyder says, to abandon [00:09:00] facts is to abandon freedom.

If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights. And the second one is from Mark Andreessen. Who says reality has had 5000 years to get good, and it is clearly still woefully lacking for most people, we should build and we are building online worlds like the metaverse that make life and work and love wonderful for everyone, no matter what level of reality deprivation they find themselves in.

So think about that last quote. I mean, who is reality deprived? Well, 2024 will be to create a virtual universe where you can live in a fantasy for eight hours a day. I mean, I just don't think that's a solution. And if you think that the, two [00:10:00] solutions on offer for us today are we take our collective Brain power, our collective technologies and our collective wealth money and try and fix climate change, fix the housing crisis, fix mental health crisis, fix the real world problems or the alternative is we assume that AI and robots would do all the work people will sit at home and they'll have nothing better to do than to think about pretending they're Tony Stark and living in Tony Stark's house and dating Gwyneth Paltrow's avatar and or dreaming of going to Mars with Elon Musk or dreaming of living to 200 as Peter Thiel wants to, or dreaming, of crypto wealth through NFTs because you bought, a bored ape that's going to be worth millions.

It's all a [00:11:00] fantasy, and so I don't, I, if that's the two choices, I know which one I'm on.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, that's basically what they're trying to do, like, they're trying to say, look, we, it's impossible to fix the current world that we all live in. So. Let's just go to this made up one that we're going to own and you will have no control over that's I think the critical component because, people, because like,

Libertarian radicalization is directly related to the rise of fascism

SHEFFIELD: as you noted with Thiel there is this there has been a radicalization of libertarianism in the United States and as I, said, I'm glad that you started off the book with that discussion of libertarianism, because, when you look at the history of libertarianism in the United States in the, let's say nineties to early two thousands, a lot of people who had that perspective They [00:12:00] actually thought that they were on the left because they were against the Iraq war, because they supported marijuana legalization, because they were not Christian fundamentalists.

And so, if you had those belief systems and you weren't that smart about politics and political ideologies, it was easy to think that you were on the left. And in fact, a lot of these people did. And as you note, like Elon Musk, for instance, and even Mark Andreessen, who are now just, full on radical right wing Republicans they were backing Democrats.

And I mean, in the case of Musk. I think, some of it was that he was directly benefiting so much from the policies of Barack Obama. I mean, there's no question about that. And then once the money spigot was turned off, he decided to revert to type.

TAPLIN: Let's be clear. They all had been, they all got And took advantage of the policies of both Bill Clinton and Barack.

Yeah, the safe harbor [00:13:00] liability shield, which Bill Clinton put in the, digital Millennium Copyright Act is what makes their business different from every other business in the world. In other words, Rupert Murdoch had to pay 785 million to a voting machine company for libel. But there was far more libelous material on Facebook and Twitter on, that issue than there was on Fox News.

And the reach was far wider. I mean, Elon Musk gets, has 135 million followers. Tucker Carlson on his best day was lucky to get 3 million people to watch him. So, I mean, Ross Douthat was right. Elon Musk is the most powerful right wing voice in America. So, when these guys decided to change, and I think it [00:14:00] was a real change, you're right, they were probably Libertarians and at some point voted for Democrats.

But when they realized that the real key to their fortunes Was to have nothing happen. In other words, have total gridlock. Then they shifted their alliances and they, voted for not change, not the future, but just stasis for stagnation because that's what it's them. As long as there's no change in the tax policy or if they get lucky, Trump lowers their business taxes or their personal taxes. And as long as there's no change in antitrust policy, they're happy. Now, obviously Biden has made a real attempt to change antitrust policy and they're pissed [00:15:00] off. They don't like that one bit. And that's why they're all going to be full out against Biden coming up.

This Google trial is a line in the sand.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think so. I think so. Now one of the,

Mark Andreesen, a far-right billionaire who's mostly unknown to the general public

SHEFFIELD: so one of the guys that you discuss in the book I think a lot of people may not have heard of him, Mark Andreessen. Tell us who Mark Andreessen is what he, what, how he started and what he's up to now.

TAPLIN: Well, Mark Andreessen made the claim that he invented the browser. Now that's not really true. There were browsers before. He was a student at the University of Illinois and he did, uh, create a browser that was a kind of rip off of a another physicist browser, but [00:16:00] be that is made. He went to Silicon Valley and got money and started Netscape.

So Netscape was arguably the first commercial browser and for about a year it ruled the world. And then Microsoft just made Internet Explorer part of the suite of tools that you got when you got Windows. For free, yeah. At the end of Netscape. It was just, you, got it installed when you got your computer, it was already there, you didn't have to download Netscape or anything, and Netscape was basically put out of business.

Not before it went public and Mark Andreessen made about 20 million personally. So then he goes off and starts Andreessen Horowitz, which is the first really major venture capital firm that understood that social media was [00:17:00] the key. To the future, and he invests in Facebook in the earliest round, along with Peter Thiel, and he invests in a lot of other, uh, social media tools and other social media companies.

 And then Andreessen Horowitz grows and grows. And so he owns the largest NFT platform. Which is called OpenSea. 80, Wall Street Journal says 80 percent of the content on OpenSea is pirated. And if you bought a Bored Ape from OpenSea, uh, a year ago, Or a year and a half ago at the height of the, hype for 50, 000, you probably couldn't sell it today for 10.

 He also was what would be known as a crypto whale [00:18:00] and he, had Solana, he had large investments in other crypto companies. And 1 of the things we. Talk about in the book is, the following. If you remember November of 2021, if you were watching a football game, there's a pretty good chance that you would see an ad for one of the big crypto exchanges.

And there would be Matt Damon telling you that fortune belongs to the bold or Tom Brady or LeBron James, or, a whole wealth of celebrities, Larry David. It got so bad that. In the 2022 Super Bowl, Madison Avenue renamed it the Crypto Bowl. There were so many ads. And so these guys, the whales, and Scott Galloway has [00:19:00] said that at that point in late 2021, 90% of all crypto holdings were held by 2 percent of the Bitcoin holders.

 So, and it was at 60, 000 a Bitcoin at that point. And so they unleash this advertising. The average sucker says, geez, I want to get in on this. They buy in at 60, 000 a coin. The whales are happy to unload their coins at 60, 000 a coin. And by May it's 19, 000 a coin. I Mean, they just, you just killed the suckers.

It was a classic pyramid scheme and it's never come back.

SHEFFIELD: It was a pump and dump and they and that's the thing about Bitcoin is they can keep doing it like that. And that's what they, these whales are doing is that they will go in and hype. Whatever coin it is that [00:20:00] they're, pushing and then, get it high up, then sell, and then when it collapses, they go and buy again and start the cycle all over again.

Right. and the people keep falling for it. I mean, and I mean, to be fair, I, feel like people, fewer people are falling for it. But you know, like Bitcoin or cryptocurrency, it's totally stupid as an investment strategy because it's not. An investment, like it is a currency that is real, has a government peg to the back of it.

And so therefore you could think of it as a currency or as an investment of some sort, because there are actually people who will accept it no matter what they're legally bound to accept it. Whereas with the crypto, coin. No one is compelled to accept it. And so therefore it has no intrinsic value whatsoever.

TAPLIN: There's one other thing that Andreessen is doing that is similar to [00:21:00] what both Musk and Thiel are doing, which is he is deep into what I call the digital military industrial complex. So the future of warfare, according to Mark Andreessen, is a war in which no humans ever get killed. And that is because all the wars are fought by drones and killer robots.

And of course, these killer robots are all operated by artificial intelligence. And the AI makes the decision when to pull the trigger. And so war is, painless in his vision of now, most every country in the world, with the exception of Russia and the United States wants to ban these weapons because in every test of the killer robots, it cannot tell the difference between a man [00:22:00] holding a broom and a man holding a long gun at 100 yards and yet it has the ability, obviously, To pull the trigger and kill that person.

So I think, um, this new way that, you know, one of the strange things and because you kind of came from a conservative background and kind of saw the light in some way, one of the things that Really strikes me is that even though these guys might call themselves libertarian, they're actually crony capitalists in the classic way.

If you think about Musk's income, SpaceX is totally funded by NASA, uh, the satellite company is totally funded by foreign governments. Tesla gets gigantic subsidies from the government, not only in terms of tax credits for buying an electric car, but they [00:23:00] also sell green credits to other auto companies that aren't quite as green as they are, uh, to the tune of 3 billion a year.

So the difference--

SHEFFIELD: Oh, and that's how they made most of their money for a long time.

TAPLIN: Yeah. So the difference between Tesla is a breakeven company and Tesla is a profitable company is that so why they claim themselves to be anti government and everything when, without the government, they would be broke.

And look, Elon wants us collectively, the taxpayers to pay him 10 trillion to take 100 people to Mars. 10 trillion. That's, his early estimate on what the first mission would cost. Now they get up there, they'd have no oxygen, so they'd have to bring all their oxygen. They'd have no radiation shield [00:24:00] because the radiation level on Mars is so high that you would get skin cancer in like 10 minutes.

So they'd have to build these very elaborate shield tents. Bubbles Biosphere 2 type things to live in, and then they'd have to get back. And, I once went over to Jet Propulsion Laboratory when asking about all this, and the guy who was running the Mars Rover division says, Well, there used to be this saying at NASA, No Buck Rogers, No Bucks, which was the idea that if you didn't send a John Glenn Kind of hero up into the capsule and risk his life and everything that the Congress wouldn't, he couldn't come back and go on a parade and get more money from the Congress.

And whereas the people at JPL say, look, we've had rovers on Mars [00:25:00] for 12 years, and they do a very good job. They dig up the stuff. They analyze the soil, they send it back by telemetry to us. We don't need to put humans on Mars. it's just a big ego trip on ego, Elon's part. Now, of course, since he gets 30 percent profit, obviously, and it's 10 trillion bill, that's 3 trillion in his pocket.

So that's, not a bad motivation.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, it's true.

‘Transhumanism’ and the fascist imagination

SHEFFIELD: One of the other big interests of people in, of these four billionaires that you are, that this book is about is transhumanism. That's kind of the obsession of Peter Thiel. And so for those who don't know, what is transhumanism?

TAPLIN: So transhumanism takes two forms. One of which is. The basic notion of the singularity, which is [00:26:00] that at some point in the next 10 years, AI could merge, you could merge your brain into an AI and continue on forever As an AI, so Peter would like to live to 200 and he's doing a lot of things to try and guarantee that happens.

He goes down to San Diego and gets blood transfusions from 16 year old boys because in his lab at Methuselah. The old mice that get blood transfusions from young mice live longer than the old mice that don't. So he's convinced this will help him live longer too. But, so the first part is this notion of merging your brain into an AI and continuing on as a consciousness.

Run by a machine. So [00:27:00] the 2nd part of transhumanism is the belief that there are things that we can do to enhance the genetic quality of life. So imagine you and your wife have an embryo in vitro, and they go do some tests on it and say. Well, it's going to be a boy, and he's not going to be a very good athlete because the twitch reflex is not going to be that strong, and he will be in the 65th percentile of the SAT test, and they could do that today, and then they would say, and for 2 million, we could probably improve that significantly.

We could make him a better athlete, or we could make him smarter. Using CRISPR. Gene editing tools. and [00:28:00] so that's a huge barrier to cross over right to say that we should edit the genes of people. So, for instance, Fukuyama, who wrote the end of history says this is the most dangerous idea in the world because essentially what it would do would be limiting the whole basis of our country.

which is that all men are created equal and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And, what it essentially would be is that you, your way of getting ahead in the world would be totally based on the money of your parents. Not on anything inherent in your God given body. So, that becomes a pretty frightening possibility.[00:29:00]

And so, both these things are being pushed. By the transhumanists. And yet there's another group of people who thinks that this is essentially the end of the world because, obviously part of transhumanism is this notion that maybe the AI takes over. It gets so much smarter than. The humans that it makes its own moves to dominate the world.

And that certainly there are enough scientists who are working on it. Think who think this is a possibility that they signed a letter saying there needed to be a pause and needless to say. The pause never happened. The pause in AI development. So [00:30:00] just like that meeting last week in Washington with Elon and the other barons of AI with Chuck Schumer and the rest of the senators.

It's just shadow play. They don't really want regulation. They've never wanted regulation of their businesses and they're going to just essentially Take it as far as they can move as quickly as they can, and it's the classic move fast and break things,

SHEFFIELD: which was your earlier book, actually. But, yeah, well, or to the extent that they will accept regulation, they want it to be a means of constraining competitors.

And so they will craft the legislation and so and you do see that. Like there is this tension right now in AI between the idea of [00:31:00] should it be open source technology or should it be, proprietary and, at this point, the, I mean, they're, I can see pluses and minuses because on the one hand, if you have the development of these technologies and it's controlled by just a few you know, anti democratic oligarchs that's really troubling for the future of humanity.

But then on the other hand if anybody can make AI generated videos or, and fake content, that opens up the possibility of Completely, realistic looking and this has already happened to some degree completely fabricated videos of, the president saying this and that, or, somebody being shot or raped or, whatever it is.

So these are serious. Issues and, but the reality is like the only way they can be resolved is to have the, people of the countries make those decisions, we're going to

TAPLIN: have an election in one year. [00:32:00] Right at this time, a year from now, there will be a level of disinformation and chaos created by AI that will make you ill to your stomach when you wake up in the morning.

It's exactly what Tim Snyder said, to abandon facts is to abandon freedom, and if nothing true is true, then all is spectacle. The whole election will be fought on such a level that no one will be able to know anything is true or not. It will be fake videos. Fake audio fake. It will be the ability. Imagine per goes and who went down in the airplane a few weeks ago, so his Internet Research Bureau was 100 [00:33:00] young Russian kids in a room, each with a computer and each with a phony ID on Facebook and their job was to churn out anti Hilary or anti whatever stuff on Facebook or on Twitter and just churn it out all day. Okay, but that's a limited number of people, a hundred people. So now, and they have to sleep . Now you've got an AI and you give it the assignment. I want 1 million posts.

In the next four hours, each one of them different, but here's the subject matter. No problem, man. No problem. So, I mean, I don't know. I think we're just, Martin Luther King talked about sleeping through the revolution. We are sleeping through the [00:34:00] revolution. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and, another interesting thing that's kind of an intersection with some of these alliances.

So, for the most part

Why "fascism" is an accurate descriptor for people like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel

SHEFFIELD: most of these right wing and are, anarchist, libertarian fascist. I mean, that's what they are is fascist. I think that's, and you, are correct to point that out in the book to call them that. But I guess, yeah, maybe before I get into that point, like, I think some people, they're reluctant to call, Elon Musk or Peter Thiel fascist.

Why. Do you think that they should get over that?

TAPLIN: Well, look, I said before, Thiel said democracy and capitalism are not compatible. He's on the side of capitalism, not democracy. He told the Wall Street Journal that only 2 percent of the people know what's going on, the VCs and [00:35:00] the scientists and everybody else is a damn sheep.

And so that point of view, which Musk has as well, is that he knows, they all have the same feeling. They know what's going on and nobody else has a clue to what the future is. And that's just this techno determinism that I talk about all the time. They're determined to go down the route they have set and nobody is stopping them. No politician. The people are addicted to these tools, so they have no power to say, I'm going off Facebook or I'm going off Twitter. It's just, it's not going to happen. And so what we're going to end up is an election. That is so chaotic and [00:36:00] I have no idea what the outcome could be, but it could be pretty horrible and look,

they are fascist, certainly Thiel and Musk are, um, I mean, Musk is taking the classic old fashioned fascist tropes, like last week, he said, the reason he's having so much trouble financially, Twitter X is because of the Jews. And, his rationale is this, that when he came on, took control of Twitter, and fired all the content moderators, and let Kanye West and all the other anti Semites back on the platform, who had been de platformed by the previous regime, [00:37:00] then the ADA, the Anti Defamation League, has the temerity to point this out to advertisers, that the Platform is a shitstorm of anti semitic hate, and he's pissed off at that?

Like, he's blaming, the messenger for what's happening. I mean, it's screwy. And it's, classic neo fascist tactics.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and also it's, you, and you know it in the book that fascism as Mussolini himself defined it was a collaboration of the corporation and the government.

Which is exactly what all these guys

TAPLIN: do. He shouldn't, Mussolini thought it shouldn't be called fascism. It should be called corporatism. Yeah, and that's what it is.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And yet, I feel like a [00:38:00] lot of people who perhaps, are not familiar with the ideology, the actual thinking behind fascism, they, just are, it's easy to instinctively recoil because, it's not guys with Nazi armbands and military Hugo Boss uniforms marching around in the street. And so they, it's hard for them to get that when you agree with them.

TAPLIN: Yeah. But, look at the reality. I mean, there was an article in the Times this morning in which they laid out that the people who are trying to prosecute the January 6th insurrection, the FBI, the prosecutors, the judges are all subject to such death threats that each of them has to have these really big [00:39:00] security details.

To go anywhere, not just for themselves, but for their families, for everything. So what is that? That's classic black shirt, fascist tactics. And if we don't name it and if people like Walter Isaacson write about Elon Musk and not even mention that there's something weird about his politics, it's just insane.

I mean, here's the guy. Who threatens to go over to one of his rival's houses and, fight him. I mean, it's just it's crazy.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, he, definitely is. And now, one of the other things when you, when you're doing some of the profiles of the, billionaires in the book here you. Note that [00:40:00] several of them Elon Musk and Peter Thiel, have backgrounds in apartheid, South Africa. And I would add David Sachs, who is basically the Lickspittle Igor of Elon Musk also has an apartheid background maybe, can you tell the audience about these three men's sort of connection and, to, apartheid South Africa and why that's significant.

TAPLIN: Well, look, I it really starts with Elon Musk's grandfather, uh, all of them. Yeah, because he's up in Canada. He's running this. Crazy kind of neo fascist, anti New Deal thing called technocracy, Inc. It's like a political movement and it's excessively anti [00:41:00] New Deal. And at some point, the Canadian government says.

Look, there's a war on and he's, basically praising Hitler, and so they, break up this organization and he decides to leave for South Africa because at least in apartheid, he can find some, a comfortable place. To live, that's not what we today would call woke. So he's a virulent anti Semite and he goes to South Africa, has children, one of whom is Musk's mother, and Elon gets raised in South Africa.

Now, as opposed to Thiel, Thiel thought Apartheid was great. He defended it against his [00:42:00] other students at Stanford. Elon did not, mainly because he didn't want to be part of the security forces, and if you were white in South Africa and you were 18 and not in college, you would get drafted. And he didn't want to be in the army, so he left Canada.

I mean, left South Africa and went to Canada because his mother still had a passport and, bummed around there and eventually. wound up in the University of Pennsylvania. But the point being is that background informs a lot of their thinking. And, as I said, Thiel has thought it was a fine way to run a country.

He defended against young African American students at Stanford,,[00:43:00] Thiel created this whole group of right wing people at Stanford. They had a magazine called the Stanford Review and the shocking thing about it was, extraordinarily homophobic and yet it was run by men who all eventually came out of the closet and were gay.

But I mean, they, they subjected gay professors to the most horrible, um, abuse. And they thought that the whole curriculum in Stanford was Designed by homosexuals and everything, and it was just . It's, extraordinary. And it wasn't, and here's the strange thing, [00:44:00] when Gawker outed Thiel, and of course then he goes to take his ultimate revenge and bankrupts them.

Everybody in Silicon Valley knew. He was out. He was gay. It was like not. It was a secret. And yet he wanted revenge for this magazine that said the obvious. So, I mean, it's hard for me to understand where these people are coming from. There's levels of hypocrisy that are so high. That I can't even imagine.

SHEFFIELD: The other aspect of the apartheid influence on these guys is that, it did give them a sense of grievance and it did give them a, a shared belief in, in, black inferiority and, you see that with Thiel in particular, because he [00:45:00] actually was has been for many years a benefactor of this far right libertarian group of the prosperity and freedom organization.

And actually, and this is a group that has literal Nazis former Nazis have spoken at its events and full of eugenicists. And other, miscreants like that, Peter Thiel was going to come and speak at one of their events. And he only stopped doing that after the Southern Poverty Law Center exposed that he was going to be a featured speaker at this event.

And, of course, he never. Send anything, apologize for his participant, scheduled participation and the business press, back to what I was saying. They ask him about this stuff. I mean, I have to say, like, the business press overwhelmingly in the West it's just, it's abysmal. Like it is, it's not even journalism. It's like fandom. And you saw that with so much of the coverage about [00:46:00] Elon Musk for many years that this guy, was constantly engaging in outright fraud, claiming he had all the money to go private with his, with a Tesla or hyperloop. He said he was going to have gone to Mars already by now, but he never got a call on it until he started messing with the one thing that the business journalists were interested in, which was Twitter and the one thing that they actually had knowledge about Direct knowledge and finally the dam seems to have kind of broken in the business journalism world but

TAPLIN: Except that except that Walter Isaacson's hagiography of Biography is, going to be number one bestseller next week, I mean, so go figure, his giant fan group exists on such a level that he has remarkable and influence. And I [00:47:00] don't think any of the problems with Twitter have changed that much quite honestly.

Why the U.S. left must create a grand democratic vision of the future

SHEFFIELD: At the same time, when you look at the, Democratic Party, which is, so here you have these, far right, fascistic oligarchs that are trying to destroy democracy and also regularly now attack. The Democratic Party and its leaders they don't seem to be really doing too much to warn their voters about it or just warn the general public even.

It seems like, most of them, it seems like a lot of Democrats kind of still think that Elon Musk, they, have this outdated view. Point of who he is and what he's about. What do you think of that?

TAPLIN: Well, look, this goes to the problem in the culture, so. Peter Drucker famously said culture eats strategy for breakfast every morning [00:48:00] and.

I believe also that culture eats politics for breakfast every morning. So, what I mean by that is that

when I was growing up,

Bob Dylan was a culture hero, right? And he had a particular political point of view against the war, for civil rights, whatever. And he pointed, he put this out in his work. And, the Beatles were culture heroes. Say you want a revolution, all of this. What's happening all the time. So those people have been replaced by Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.

They're the new culture hero. They're the people with 135 million followers on Twitter. [00:49:00] And Their point of view is one that is both nihilistic and basically feeding this whole dark view of the future. Now, they're not alone in this. You think about Jason Aldean saying, you come into my small town and I'll kick your ass or young thug, who's on trial for a RICO case that has more charges than Donald Trump in Atlanta for killing people.

And these are our culture heroes you think about them compared to what Musk and, Thiel are saying, they, they obviously, Musk obviously has a huge amount of influence. [00:50:00] And that affects everything. My sense is that part of the problem for us as a culture is that we've had this kind of dark anti hero view since the Iraq war.

So you think about what happened after the Iraq war on television, the Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Succession, I mean, all the theory and the way that these characters on television operate is these are horrible people who are battling in great power struggles to stay alive. And to conquer.

And so [00:51:00] it's not that bizarre that after 10 years of that, or I assume, I think the Sopranos started in the early 2000s, right? So after 15 years of that, that in 2016, people say, well, maybe Tony Soprano should be president. Let’s get a guy like Donald Trump. He can kick ass and take names. That's what we need.

We need a power player. And that's a kind of deep cynicism, um, that somehow we have to get out of. And the problem is that right now, there's two religions. One is the religion, the gospel of progress being pitched by Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg and Mark Andreessen and [00:52:00] Peter Thiel, which is just leave it to us and the world will work out and we will move forward.

We'll end up getting you some money so you can sit at home and pretend to live in a fantasy world and your life may suck right now because you work at the 7 Eleven in 10 years. It'll be fine because you won't have to do anything and you can just play video games all day. So that's. The gospel of progress.

The other is the gospel of nostalgia, which is Trump's pitch. Make America great again. We can somehow go back to a 1950s kind of life that your parents lived, and there won't be any pushy trans [00:53:00] people or lesbians telling you what to do or anything, and somehow you're going to live a life. That's going to be just a dream life the way it used to be neither of those two views.

Is adequate to the moment we are in right now, Gramsci said a fabulous thing. He says the oldest dying and the new cannot be born in this interregnum. Many morbid symptoms appear. So we're caught between 2 worlds were caught between a dying world, which is Donald Trump's vision of the universe in which Okay.

White people dominate everything and, it's just, go to the country club and, golfers rule the world or whatever, and then this other [00:54:00] notion, and obviously the future that we want. Which is a future with no global warming and a future where people are housed and the people, where people who are mentally ill are taken care of, we can have that if, instead of giving Elon Musk 10 trillion to go to Mars, we gave some people 10 trillion.

To fix the electricity grid, we could have a fairly good life, I was in Austin a couple of years ago and I saw this 3D printed houses and literally they make them in 24 hours out of concrete 3D printed cost 60, 000. I mean, that fixes a lot of problems, but we're not [00:55:00] adopting these things.

SHEFFIELD: well, you're right. But like, there are all kinds of things that we could be doing. But we're not as a society and, a lot of that, I mean, a lot of that does come down to media though, that when you look at people who have. Progressive viewpoints ones that, because I mean, like, even in the case of like transhumanism, for instance, there is, there are a lot of positive things that you can think of in terms of some of these advancements, like, helping people overcome disease, overcome aging overcome genetic defects like Crohn's disease or whatever, chronic conditions.

these are positive things but there, there aren't enough people out there on the center to left saying, look, guys, these are the issues of tomorrow and we need to start thinking about them and we need to start acting on them because, like, and there's, because if we don't, then everything's just going to get sucked up [00:56:00] by these billionaires and they're going to run everything and you will not have a choice. I mean, we are at this moment here already, even where, that you've got, I mean, companies like Facebook, trying to push India around in various ways. And even the idea of having, I mean, I think it was right that Donald Trump was banned from social platforms for creating, trying to conduct a coup and betraying his country and, fomenting violence, but at the same time, that still should give people pause, even if you really don't like Trump, that the idea that a private corporation has the power to.

Tell the president of the United States, Hey, you know what? You're out of here. Go fuck yourself. Like, that's, that should be, it should be concerning to people.

TAPLIN: Okay, let's, parse that.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, there's a lot [00:57:00] there

TAPLIN: part of the problem with social media is the lack of content moderation. That is part of the problem. That's not the... So, I mean, one could make the pretty good argument that for the 14 year old girls who are hurting themselves, Who are committing suicide, who are deeply depressed because of the comparisons they're making to everybody else on social media, or the way they're getting abused on social media. One could make the argument that social media has been a net negative to society.

That there's nothing really positive. Now, I am not a Luddite, and I'm even... Someone who believes in the golden rule. [00:58:00] So I am not trying to ascribe to Elon Musk that he is just some ruthless. Bond villain, even though he acts like one a lot, but when I, and, I do believe that AI is better at reading mammograms than humans.

That's a fact right today. So we should use AI to read mammograms. We should use AI to do all sorts of things that AI is good at, but that doesn't mean That we have to have AI take over and, flood the universe of social media with misinformation, which is going to happen, is going to happen. I promise you.

And so, the guys at Bellingcat, which is a firm that kind of has explored [00:59:00] Putin's world better than anybody. And we're the people who said, here's how Navalny was. Poisoned and all of that, their biggest fear is that Musk and Thiel are going to give Putin high quality AI to cause chaos. They've both made it very clear they do not want Biden elected. And as I've told you, the fact that Biden administration is not only in the midst of an antitrust suit, Google, but is suing Facebook is potentially looking at Amazon is potentially looking at Twitter. They think Lena Khan is the devil. These, guys, the head of the FTC. So, I mean, they're going to do everything they can to make sure that Biden [01:00:00] isn't reelected.

And whether that means giving Donald Trump A. I. s or not, I don't know.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and I mean, the reality is though that people who are on the center to left, who are public figures, commentators, they have to step up to these issues. They have to be interested in them because. These are the, controversies that will affect, the, or these are the ideas and the things that are going to affect the next 50 years and they're being almost at, abdicated in a lot of ways, these technologies and the public has to be involved with these issues, but the public won't be involved with them if they're political leaders.

Aren't talking about it. And, there's a crisis with that. I think

TAPLIN: I agree. But if the former editor of Time Magazine and the former head of [01:01:00] CNN, Walter Isaacson, writes, quote, There was something exhilarating and also a bit unnerving about Musk's ability to see his endeavors as having epic making significance.

As Max Levchin proudly puts it, One of Elon's greatest skills is the ability to pass off his vision as a mandate from heaven. This is a guy who thinks he's a God and when the guy who came up with the idea of the singularity was asked if he believed in God, he said, not yet.

SHEFFIELD: One thing about Thiel with all this stuff is have you looked into his religious views?

They are very, strange.

TAPLIN: Yeah, I look, we part of Thiel's circle. [01:02:00] Is a kind of Christian, uh, apocalyptic end of the world people, so he has a bold hole in New Zealand for the world. If the apocalypse is coming, he's, he's a prepper, but he's a billionaire prepper, right? He's got.

Everything set up in New Zealand and he's even got a New Zealand passport beneath it. And so when the pitchfork brigade starts coming for his house in Miami or his apartment in Miami, he'll, be out of there. So, I mean. but he's also surrounded with people like Curtis Yarvin, [01:03:00] who basically believes we need a dictator, we need a king, and that Trump should be the king.

 Hell with this democracy stuff. It doesn't work. That's their feeling.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah, well, I mean, Musk's case, he also, with his religious views, like, he believes that transhumanism is fulfilling the promise of God. That God, that Heaven, humans have to make it so that they can ascend to consciousness and unity with God.

That is the only way that it happens. And, and it's like people, I think to some extent think of him as an atheist or non religious, but he actually is a very extreme, radical Christian and, and, but, that, and that is the commonality. I think maybe we can end on sort of, there is this, people, I think to some degree might [01:04:00] think that someone like Elon Musk, who is not Christian, not religious. I mean, he literally wore a demonic costume for Halloween last year as a joke that people, sometimes it might think that, well, how could these, secular and Mark Andreessen is not religious either, as far as I know. How could these secular billionaires, what do they have in common with these Christian fundamentalists who are in the party that they run now, and let's maybe talk about that, but what do you think it is that they have in common?

TAPLIN: Well, it could be this kind of revelations into the world notion, and if the world is going to end. What are we going to do about it? So, so, basically, Elon says, well, we got to be, have another planet to go to, right?

And we'll start all over again on Mars, even [01:05:00] though it's unbelievably hostile place to try and live. I think that, the rest of them are, just people who are not really thinking that deeply about the future, they're thinking about preserving what they have right now. And that's why, from a point of view of political influence.

They want the status quo. They're happy with gridlock. They're happy with chaos. They're happy with all of that. It's just fine with them. Because as long as they don't get taxed more and as long as nobody can regulate them, they're, they're going [01:06:00] to essentially take all the marbles, and...

Because no one can stop them.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and it's also, I think that there's that they do share a common epistemology, even if they don't have a common religious viewpoint. And that is that. You know that, I mean, you, read through any of the profiles of Musk or just watch him on TV and Peter Thiel is the same way, like all of these guys, they believe that the things they know and the things they have, they got through their intuitive reasoning, their superior gut instincts that they know how things are without even having to research necessarily because they're so smart and so amazing at perceiving reality.

And the thing is, though, that intuitive reasoning is also how religious fundamentalism works because in religious fundamentalism, facts are not real [01:07:00] that science, science proves that humans evolved or science proves that the earth is not 7, 000 years old, but we don't have to believe that because in, in my feelings, my gut tells me that those scientists lie. My intuition tells me that, that the humans didn't evolve or that COVID vaccines are fake. And so that's what they have in common. They have the same thought process, even if it isn't the same, starting point.

TAPLIN: But, let's also understand who enabled the possibility of thinking that way.

So I'm a lot older than you are, but when I was in the midst of, say, the late sixties, Working for Bob Dylan, Walter Cronkite would come on the air every night with the CBS Evening News, and at the end of the [01:08:00] broadcast, he would say, that's the way it is, July 18th, 1968, and to a large extent. 80 percent of the people in America could accept that we had a shared set of facts and even though the country was divided in the sense that some people were for Nixon and some people were for Humphrey, some people were for the war.

Some people were not for the war. We still had a basic shared set of facts. And social media blew that apart. The combination of social media and the end of the Fairness Doctrine, so that you could have a station like Fox News, or you could have a Rush Limbaugh, was pure propaganda. Those two [01:09:00] things changed that reality.

And we no longer have any shared set of facts. So whether it's the religious conservatives or the right wing nationalists or whatever, they can live in a reality in which they believe that Donald Trump was the duly elected president in 2020, uh, that the COVID thing was just a scam by Bill Gates to implant microchips in your brain and, any number of other whack job ideas.

 And they can feel totally comfortable. They have no cognitive distance whatsoever that maybe what they believe is not right. Because they're constantly reinforced every night on Sean Hannity or on their Facebook feed. [01:10:00]

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah, that's true. Well, so now you let's, I guess maybe let's also finally talk about what are some of the ideas to fix this situation. And you talk about some of them in the book.

TAPLIN: Well, I mean, first off. There's two sides to that. One is cultural and one is political. So the political is actually beginning to be played out, right? I mean, so suing Google. And breaking up Google, that's a start. Breaking up Facebook would be a start. Breaking up Twitter would be a start.

That, that would be one thing. So that you don't have the power of two people, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk controlling social media. Okay, so that's just that's one thing. The second thing is, uh, cultural. So, I went with my Grandchildren and [01:11:00] my children to Africa last summer and we were in a place in Tanzania where there was no Cellphone coverage none and the kids who were 15 13 and 10 at first were like freaked out nothing on their screens nothing and then After a day, they just gave up and put them away in their luggage and turn them off.

And that was it. And for 10 days, they were completely present, completely seeing the world, didn't even think about the screens and their parents were like, what the hell is happening here? Right? So. You can do that on a personal level, people, there's a thing called the digital Sabbath, right?

Which is just every [01:12:00] Sunday as a family, put all your devices in a box and shut it, lock it up and talk to each other. For a full day and see how that works out. Then there's the bigger cultural things. What is the new culture going to be? So it struck me that this summer, the two biggest tours were Taylor Swift and Beyonce.

Two women totally dominated the normally male dominated pop music scene. Completely dominated. And what were they selling? They were selling, Beyonce called her to a renaissance. They were selling this idea of rebirth, of vulnerability, of rebirth. Of figuring things out and Taylor Swift, the same thing, like, I'm just this [01:13:00] girl who's trying to find a way in the world and find love and, I make mistakes and I'm vulnerable and everything and it worked men and women wanted to hear that instead of Young Thug and Jason Aldean, the kick butt male macho thing. And, Barbie, same deal, an exploration of other ways of thinking. So, the, change from the Sopranos to Beyonce's Renaissance tour is, real. The change from gangster rap to Taylor Swift is real. And that's what needs to happen.

The culture needs to revive [01:14:00] itself in a kind of positive, optimistic way. I mean, I was lucky enough to work and live in a culture, whether it was with Dylan and the band or George Harrison or Marty Scorsese, it was all about optimism. All about possibility, all about let's, forever young. And I thank my lucky stars that I was there and hopefully it could come again.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, that's, yeah,

TAPLIN: Can I just read you something as an ending?


TAPLIN: So this is from Camus, the French writer, and there's a book called The Rebel, which is a book about the role artists played in the resistance against the Nazis. He said: “We are at the extremities now. At the end [01:15:00] of this tunnel of darkness, however, there is next invariably a light which we already divine, and for which we only have to fight to ensure its coming. All of us among the ruins are preparing a renaissance beyond the limits of nihilism.”

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, that's great. That is great. And I think you're really right about that. The thing that people have to realize is that nihilism is right wing, and optimism is not. And so part of the way you defeat this robotic fake reality is by believing that you can. That's the first step.

TAPLIN: These people, the four people I write about in my book, they want to replace nature and humanity with machines. And we have to resist that. [01:16:00] It's just that simple.

SHEFFIELD: Agreed. Agreed. All right. Well, that's been a great conversation, Jon. Let me put the book up on the screen so everybody can check it out.

So, the book is, your latest book here, I should say is “The End of Reality: How Four Billionaires Are Selling a Fantasy Future of the Metaverse, Mars, and Crypto.” So I definitely encourage everybody to check that out. And then you're also on the Elon Musk Twitter as I am. Unfortunately it is still owned by him.

You're on there at @jonathantaplin. And the last name is T-A-P-L-I-N for those who are listening. So thanks for being here, Jon.

TAPLIN: My pleasure, Matthew. It was fun.

SHEFFIELD: Alright, so that's the program for today. I appreciate everybody for joining us for the conversation. And if you want to get more episodes of the program, just go to And then of course you can also go to to get more articles and podcasts about politics, religion, media, and [01:17:00] society.

And if you are able to support us financially with a paid subscription, I would really appreciate that. Thank you very much for your help. I'll see you next time.

Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? History is filled with stories of people and institutions that spent big and devoted many resources to effect change but have little to show for it. By contrast, many societal developments have happened without forethought from anyone. And of course, change can be negative as well as positive.
In each episode of this weekly program, Theory of Change host Matthew Sheffield delves deep with guests to discuss larger trends in politics, religion, media, and technology.