Ended: March 23, 2018
Yet conspiracy is a neutral word. It depends on what one does with it. Our tendency to shy away from this truth creates a profound ignorance of how things really work, and what it means to be strategic, to be powerful, and to try to shape events rather than simply be shaped by them.
Conspiracy entails determined, coordinated action, done in secret—always in secret—that aims to disrupt the status quo or accomplish some aim.
Nick Denton, whom you will come to know in these pages, is a kind of freethinker who has always held that the things other people are afraid to say are precisely the ones that need saying most.
Peter Thiel, whom you will also come to know, has famously become associated with one question, which he uses in interviews and over long dinners: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”
“We live in a world where people don’t think conspiracies are possible,” Thiel would tell me. “We tend to denounce ‘conspiracy theories’ because we are skeptical of privileged claims to knowledge and of strong claims of human agency. Many people think they are not possible, that they can’t be pulled off.”
Machiavelli said that a proper conspiracy moves through three distinct phases: the planning, the doing, and the aftermath. Each of these phases requires different skills—from organization to strategic thinking to recruiting, funding, aiming, secrecy, managing public relations, leadership, foresight, and ultimately, knowing when to stop. Most important, a conspiracy requires patience and fortitude, so much patience, as much as it relies on boldness or courage.
Girard’s theory of mimetic desire holds that people have no idea what they want, or what they value, so are drawn to what other people want. They want what other people have. They covet. It’s this, Girard says, that is the source of almost all the conflict in the world. Is
One quickly finds that he is a man notoriously averse to small talk, or what a friend once deemed “casual bar talk.” Even the most perfunctory comment to Thiel can elicit long, deep pauses of consideration in response—so long you wonder if you’ve said something monumentally stupid. The tiny assumptions that grease the wheels of conversation find no quarter with Thiel. There is no chatting with Peter about the weather or about politics in general. It’s got to be, “I’ve been studying opening moves in chess, and I think king’s pawn might be the best one.” Or, “What do you think of the bubble in higher education?” And then you have to be prepared to talk about it at the expert level for hours on end. You can’t talk about television or music or pop culture because the person you’re sitting across from doesn’t care about these things and he couldn’t pretend to be familiar with them if he wanted to.
There is something popular with ambitious people called the “briefcase technique.” You don’t show up to a meeting with a few vague ideas, you have a full-fledged plan that you take out of your briefcase and hand to the person you are pitching. Even if nothing comes of this plan, the person on the other side is knocked over by your effort, so impressed by the unexpected certainty that they cannot help but see your usefulness to them.
It would be a mistake to confuse Peter’s pondering Socratic-ness for uncertainty. His mind, for all its detours and considerations, ultimately meanders toward precision, the kind that calculates down to the ten-thousandth decimal point in ordinary conversation. He is the kind of man who might make a multimillion bet without hesitation. It’s only if you ask him a question about an arcane point in Russian literature that you get the long pause of consideration. He wouldn’t want to just spout off. But if he thinks he has some deep idea about human nature, about the market, he’ll go all in.
This is the model he likes to operate. Early in the two companies he cofounded, PayPal and Palantir, Thiel would install strong CEOs and leaders. He relies on what might be called the plenipotentiary model—empowering trusted, skilled people on his behalf to execute the bold vision he has created.
A start-up is, in Peter’s definition, “a small group of people that you’ve convinced of a truth that nobody else believes in.”
“With patience and resources,” Mr. A would come to say often on his weekly calls with Peter, “we can do almost anything.” Tolstoy had a motto for Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov in War and Peace—“Patience and Time.” “There is nothing stronger than those two,” he said, “. . . they will do it all.” In 1812 and in real life, Kutuzov gave Napoleon an abject lesson in the truth of that during a long Russian winter.
He would say his favorite chess player was José Raúl Capablanca, and remind himself of the man’s famous dictum: To begin you must study the end. You don’t want to be the first to act, you want to be the last man standing.
An investor tells me that with each investment, Peter Thiel likes to ask: What do I know about this company that other investors don’t know? In other words: Do we have an edge? It’s only with some sort of informational asymmetry, goes the thinking, that one can not only beat the market but dominate it, and get the kind of return that takes a $500,000 check and turns it into a billion.
Thiel’s default state is to embody contradiction. Doing so is what makes him such a brilliant investor, considering each trade and investment anew from a dozen perspectives, seeing what others aren’t able to see and doing it on a regenerative basis. A friend would say that “Peter is of two minds on everything. If you were able to open his skull, you would see a number of Mexican standoffs between powerful antagonistic ideas you wouldn’t think could be safely housed in the same brain.”
Peter had learned from his early experiences with Gawker and the media that those with unconventional beliefs should probably keep most of what they think to themselves.
“Psychologically, there is this weird thing where you want to brag about these things that you’re not supposed to,” Thiel would say to me. Freud explained this phenomenon a hundred years ago: “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger-tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” This is how Peter justified the few friends he told and how he suspects he was eventually discovered. Just as rules are meant to be broken, it seems, secrets are meant to be shared.
Even benign conspiracies are revealed this way, through the irresistibility of telling someone, anyone.
“The truest way to be deceived is to think oneself more knowing than others” is La Rochefoucauld’s maxim.
The conspirators remained committed and seem to have observed their self-imposed limitation of legal behavior—perhaps out of moral goodness or perhaps simply because they wanted a clean victory. There were plenty of illicit or untoward things they could have done secretly, but to what end? At what cost? “I think there’s always this question,” Thiel would say. “I do think you always want to think about, you know, when this ultimately comes out. Is it defensible? And I think all the things that we did were defensible. And so secrets aren’t necessarily forever. You have to live with it coming out at the end.”
“Anyone who has a guilty conscience can easily be led to believe that people are talking about him,” Machiavelli warns conspirators. “A word with another meaning is overheard which shakes your courage and makes you think it was said with respect to your plans. The result is that you either reveal the conspiracy yourself by fleeing or you confuse the undertaking by acting at the wrong time.”
The secrecy of a conspiracy and its execution, then, is not purely a matter of planning and discipline, but also a matter of the bonds that bind the conspirators together. Once you get everyone on the bus, how do you keep them onboard? How do you reward them for loyalty? How do you get the best out of them? How do you trust them, knowing as you do the lengths to which they’re willing to go and secrets they’re willing to keep?
The line attributed to the management guru Peter Drucker is that culture eats strategy. It’s a truism that applies as much to conspiracies as it does to businesses. It doesn’t matter how great your plan is, it doesn’t matter who your people are, if what binds them all together is weak or toxic, so, too, will be the outcome—if you even get that far. But if the ties that bind you together are strong, if you have a sense of purpose and mission, you can withstand great trials.
Machiavelli warns conspirators that the most dangerous time is after the deed is done.
Loss inherently makes the loser sympathetic. We can easily be made to feel bad for the person on the other side of a true catastrophe, even if just minutes before we thought they had it coming to them.
Scipio Africanus, the general who defeated Hannibal, would say that an army should not only leave a road for their enemy to retreat by, they should pave it. The Romans had a name for this road, the Gallic Way.
One of the worst things that can ever happen to a leader is to unconsciously associate resistance and criticism with opportunity. When everyone tells you you’re wrong and you turn out to be right, you learn a dangerous lesson: Never listen to warnings. And so the reason that few conspiracies are followed by additional successful conspiracies is because of this process and the changes that power produces.
“The idea of a conspiracy,” Thiel would say to me, “is linked with intentionality, with planning, working towards longer-term goals. In a world where you don’t have conspiracies maybe also those things disappear.” The truth is that Gawker already believed we lived in that world. And so do far too many people.
Regardless of any personal opinions I might have, that was the tragic and absurd message of this book. We live in a world where only people like Peter Thiel can pull something so intentional and long-term off—and it’s not because, as Gawker has tried to make it seem, he’s rich. It’s because he’s one of the few who believes it can be done. To borrow a line from Zero to One, to believe in conspiracies is an effective truth. To dismiss anything as impossible is as well.