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Peter Thiel: UK leaders have ‘secret agreement’ to talk up culture wars

Billionaire Peter Thiel addresses students at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford

October 26, 2023 - 7:00am

Oxford

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have a “secret agreement” to talk about the culture wars as much as possible, Peter Thiel has said. 

Speaking at the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford as part of the Scruton Memorial lecture series, the Silicon Valley billionaire argued that the Prime Minister and Labour leader were trying to distract the population from the economic problems facing the country:

It seems to me that there is a secret agreement between Starmer and Sunak to talk as much about culture wars, take various sides on those issues, to avoid addressing basic economic questions like runaway deficit spending. This you can solve with either higher taxes or lower entitlements, but if we talk about these then we’ll lose 10-15% of our voters… There’s a kind of ‘look ahead function’ meaning that we shouldn’t touch that; but when all the solutions are outside the Overton window, we’re confined in this very narrow box and the groundhog day will continue until something really breaks.
- Peter Thiel

He began his speech with a chant he remembered from his days as a student at Stanford: “Hey hey, ho ho, western culture’s got to go”. It sums up, he says, a battle that has raged ever since. But the woke vs. anti-woke dichotomy is a “magic trick” designed to distract us from what is really going on. 

Douglas Murray and Kevin Spacey listen to Peter Thiel

Thiel singled out the housing crisis, which successive politicians have failed to remedy over the last two decades: “Think about the craziest woke excess in the UK of the last 10 years and then think about how it increased aggregate housing prices,” he told the audience, before adding that the Marxist critique “had quite a bit to it”:

When you’re focused on all these forms of identity politics you’re not focused enough on economics. Race, gender, but there is not enough focus on class. Even though I’m not a Marxist, the Marxist critique has quite a bit to it. If you had Karl Marx or Rosa Luxemburg here, they would suggest [DEI officials] are in the same category as a bank robber or a prostitute because it’s a form of crony capitalism.
- Peter Thiel

Thiel asserted that the Left was more prone to trying to repeat old radical ideas than the Right, warning that “going back to Blair is a mistake we have to make in the UK”:

The temptation has always been to find a straightforwardly economic solution. Getting science and tech back on track is pretty hard. There was a one-time Right-wing fix by Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s: deregulate, cut taxes and allow lots of mergers and acquisitions to happen. That gave the economy an enormous lift. Then there was a one-time Clinton-Blair solution in 1995-2007, which was globalisation. It was also a way to increase GDP and a far more ruthless way than capitalism because it led to huge amounts of inequality. There were some gains from that. Sadly the centre-left still believes we can go back to this.
- Peter Thiel

In his address and subsequent conversation with philosopher John Gray, Thiel said there were other issues that politicians and elites were attempting to distract from. One was the decline of the sciences in universities.“Be suspicious of cancer researchers claiming they’ll have a breakthrough in just a few more years,” Thiel warned. Science has been degraded, and it is “no longer progressing”:

If we criticise universities for its humanities, that it what the centre-Left blob and the establishment wants us to do […] Where they get their sense of validation from is the sciences. If you can show that the sciences are more corrupt than the humanities, you win, game set and match […] The string theorists have been doing nothing for 40 years.
- Peter Thiel

The most significant loss in contemporary society, according to Thiel, has been that of God and religion. “It’s an odd thing to be distracted from,” Thiel said, “because it suggests so many ways that this debate could be reframed.” “Wokeness”, meanwhile, was a perversion and acceleration of Christian narratives: “woke post-Christian temptation is to be more Christian than the Christians.” 

The venture capitalist concluded that a possible alternative to the extremes of fascism or communism might be some form of “Christian democracy”.


is UnHerd’s Senior Producer and Presenter for UnHerd TV.

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Steve Murray
Steve Murray
8 months ago

Hmm… one might just as well ask the question: so what’s Thiel’s grift, then?
For a start, his claim that Sunak/Starmer “talk about the culture wars as much as possible” simply isn’t true. If anything, they go out of their way to avoid the multiple subjects involved, and squirm when asked a direct question. Given that’s the basis for his hypothesis, what should we make of what follows from it?
I’d suggest Thiel may well have his own agenda (as if he didn’t!), which suits him to “talk up” something which makes him sound a bit controversial, a bit “edgy”, but which turns out to be wide of the mark. I’m sure he must be aware of this… so what’s he trying to distract his audience from?

Last edited 8 months ago by Steve Murray
John Sullivan
John Sullivan
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“his claim that … simply isn’t true”

Absolutely right. It’s complete nonsense.

Geoff W
Geoff W
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Not exactly his grift, but he thinks that having made a lot of money means that he’s a genius, so he wants to prove that he’s a genius by advancing grandiose theories which – in a sign of his incoherence and stupidity – somehow manage to synthesise culture wars, a kind of conspiracy theory, the Overton window and Groundhog Day.
Dominic Cummings, The Sage of SubStack, is a comparable case. Because he’s read a bit of fairly obscure science and philosophy, he thinks he’s the Messiah, but actually he’s just a very naughty boy.

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Have a look into The Praxis Society; that’s his bag.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I also snagged on the assertion that the Left was more prone to trying to repeat old radical ideas than the Right. Having watched the Thatcher cosplay that went on with the Tories over the past year, I’m not sure I’m buying this.
The Tories reaching for the Thatcher comfort blanket, Labour reverting to Blair…this is nothing to do with Left or Right and everything to do with a political class devoid of ideas and reaching Desperationville.

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
8 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I think there’s the shadow of Brexit here – our political elites outsourced for so long that they have no idea how to manage things now that the EU safety net has been removed.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
8 months ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

That’s John Gray’s contention. He said the most persuasive argument he heard for voting remain was the fact that the political class simply weren’t up to the job of delivering Brexit.

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
8 months ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

I would have voted to Leave – my postal vote arrived too late – but that is the one Remain argument that resonates with me. I hoped that the vote would act to wake them up. It looks like they closed their eyes some more and just wished it would go away.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
8 months ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

And the political class has proved him right, although the EU’s political class is not exactly delivering either.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

There’s that, but also with the Northern Irish situation, it was constitutionally impossible. That’s why I didn’t vote for it.
I could just imagine someone like Johnson trying to do it . . . and restarting The Troubles in the process.

Last edited 8 months ago by Dumetrius
Mike Downing
Mike Downing
8 months ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

I agree with you about this although I voted leave in good faith after reading a couple of books about it all.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the political class now don’t really expect to be able to achieve much at all and it’s all a form of theatre for them ; just look at that pretty boy front man in Canada.

But I’d still rather reserve the right to kick our elected leaders out than trust in the likes of Ursula and Charles in Brussels. Nor do I buy the idea that supranational organisations are any more likely to ‘solve our problems ‘; they seem even more removed from the action, more insulated in their bubbles, and just more likely to make even bigger mistakes.

Last edited 8 months ago by Mike Downing
Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
8 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

The Thatcher re-enactment society known as the Conservative Party want to repeat the mistakes of the late 20th C. but all leftwingers are permanently stuck in a cognitive loop cosplaying 1789. The wealthiest, wettest liberal is always (psychologically) on the verge of taking to the barricades to defy The Man (even when they are The Man).

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Yep – a dumb premise for an idiotic thesis

Last edited 8 months ago by Shrunken Genepool
Ed Paice
Ed Paice
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Completely agree. So much nonsense. Should have been no-platformed (ha!).

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
8 months ago

Thiel’s assertion does not fit the facts.
Our politicians don’t really discuss and fight over “culture war” issues such as: transgender ideology, multiculturalism, race based criminality or the fundamental incompatibility of certain groups with modern liberal democracy, and the increasing danger they present.
On immigration they skirt around the margins. Labour says legal immigration is a bit too high and the fake asylum seekers coming from France should be processed quicker, while the Tories will pretend they want to reduce immigration and are seriously considering pulling out the ECHR. But its all tame stuff that avoids facing the hard truths
The two don’t argue much on economic matters either. But that is not because there isn’t plenty to criticise. It’s just rather difficult for Labour and the Tories to argue when the Tories have ideologically conceded to Labour’s high tax and spend, bloated, parasitic, interfering state, social democrat vision of government’s role.
In their parlous state, actually engaging with the culture wars would make perfect sense for the Tories. They could seriously put a dyed in the wool Leftist “progressive” like Starmer and his shadow cabinet on the back foot.
But contrary to what Thiel says, the Tories have conspicuously failed to take their advantage by engaging in the culture war. One has to ask why, and the most likely answer is that the Party is so riddled with Lib Dems, even if Sunak was inclined to go to war, he would find a large number of those sitting behind him deserting and taking up cudgels for the other side.
The fact is that the Tories and Labour aren’t engaging in any significant conflict on economic or cultural matters. They can’t, because the bulk of both parties now occupy the same ideological ground.

Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
8 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

Uniparty!

J Bryant
J Bryant
8 months ago

I think Thiel’s lecture was too complicated to be summarized in an approx. 500 word post. For example, the article quotes Thiel as saying, “the centre-Left blob and the establishment … get their sense of validation from … the sciences. If you can show that the sciences are more corrupt than the humanities, you win, game set and match…The string theorists have been doing nothing for 40 years. ”
What does that quote mean? In what way do the centre-Left and establishment obtain validation from the sciences? How does it help them to show the sciences are corrupt? And what does the lack of progress in string theory have to do with the rest of the quote (is Thiel proposing string theory isn’t advancing because of some form of corruption rather than because string theory is difficult or potentially a dead end)?
Thiel’s lecture sounds interesting. I’d like to listen to the whole thing.
Edit: I just did some googling and discovered there’s a youtube site called “Roger Scruton Memorial Lectures.” The Thiel lecture isn’t up there yet but I’m guessing it will be at some point (if you’re interested).

Last edited 8 months ago by J Bryant
Norman Powers
Norman Powers
8 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Think about COVID. The power wielded by the centre-left blob/establishment during this time came from claiming their acts were required by The Science, which was corrupt. It doesn’t help them to show the sciences are corrupt, you misread the quote. It helps them if people just attack waste or excess in the humanities. He’s saying ignore stupid stuff happening in the humanities (and IMO to some extent “social science”), he’s saying focus on the stupid stuff happening in the hard sciences because that completely undermines the woke left.
And yes he’s suggesting that the lack of progress in physics and many other fields is due partly to “corruption” defined very broadly (distorted incentives created by grant funding).

Jennifer Lawrence
Jennifer Lawrence
8 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I don’t think he’s necessarily claiming that there isn’t enough progress with string theory, but is rather claiming (in very confusing language) that scientific development is stagnating due to entrenched epistemic relativism; an excessively constructivist and rhetorical conception of objectivity and truth, both of which have culminated in the decline of the scientific method in the last twenty to thirty years.
As NP notes, the real-life consequences of this decline were seen in the cantankerous debates surrounding Covid, lockdowns, and vaccines during the pandemic, where several scientists seemed to even doubt that objective scientific knowledge was possible; the subjectivisation of objectivity arguably reflects a broader epistemological problem in the sciences, where any claims to objectivity or facticity, even if based on hard data, have increasingly become persona non grata as scientists have come to believe that all knowledge is subjective, and is, by some rather incoherent forms of philosophical caveat, hence impossible.
In the cultural-political sphere, politicians still use conventional methods of rhetoric and argumentation to justify their claims to knowledge, and in doing so draw on scientific evidence to prove their claims — which are then challenged by opposing evidence that has been framed as equally valid in the sciences. Two opposing positions cannot be equally true unless one is a relativist, does not believe in facts or hold that absolutely certain (vs. infinitely certain) knowledge is possible. As the latter has become the case in STEM, relativism in the sciences has thus motored the kind of post-truth ping pong matches we see in the political sphere of late. It this connection between the slipperiness of the scientific method and the sloppiness of current political rhetoric that, I think, Thiel is trying to get at in very convoluted terms.

Last edited 8 months ago by Jennifer Lawrence
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago

After reading the essay and some of the comments, I tried to figure out what distinguishes the two parties from each other. I really can’t think of anything substantial. As a Canadian, I’m not completely tapped in though. It’s no different in Canada either.

Kevan Hudson
Kevan Hudson
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Considering all five parties in the House of Commons applauded a Nazi it certainly is no different in Canada.
Add in the fact that you have the New Democratic Party (NDP), and Liberal confidence agreement. Also, the Bloc Québécois and Greens almost always vote with the Liberals as well.
I suspect a lot of Conservatives votes next election outside of traditional Conservative areas will be anti government votes. Contrary to what many non Canadians think there are a significant chunk of center left voters who dislike the Greens, Liberals and NDP. Part of what is causing the Conservatives to rise in British Columbia (up to 25% in recent polls) is some support from the left including left wing activists.

j watson
j watson
8 months ago

You don’t get much more anti-democratic, secret Elite than likes of Billionaire Thiel. Check out his record of backing particular causes. Thus treat everything he says with considerable caution even if occasionally a nugget of truth or good insight pokes through.
The point about ‘culture wars’ being a distraction from structural economic issues clearly resonates in our times, and he’s sufficient grounding to note this clearly predicted in Marxist theory. (Slight aside but the anti-woke show their ignorance of Marx when they contend identity politics some sort of Marxist ideology).
Where’s he’s wrong though is suggesting both Sunak and Starmer driving this. They may be responding to it, but they aren’t the drivers. No what’s driving it is much more the secret Billionaire Elites like Thiel and he’s deploying exactly the same form of ‘distraction strategy’ and trying to camouflage that intent. The deflection to some left wing blob just a form of that. Just like the Media barons who daily distract and divide us via Culture wars twaddle.
Unherd of course does this too, almost daily, albeit does have some great insights too so position is variable, but the criticism ‘holds’. For example no doubt this week we’ll have an Article on gender self-ID and the potential damage to adolescents. Whilst there is certainly an issue here, where are the Articles on the number of children growing up in structural poverty – much bigger issue with much greater damage and societal implications? Not there is it. Always ask why and whether one is being deliberately channelled.

Last edited 8 months ago by j watson
David Lindsay
David Lindsay
8 months ago

From the opposite end of the spectrum, fundamentally I agree with him. Britain’s unpopular “populists” promote neoliberal economic policies and neoconservative foreign policies with a fanaticism that has almost no international parallel while publicly pretending to hold conservative social views, and Britain’s eccentric “centrists” promote those policies just as fanatically while attempting no such pretence. There is no true difference between the two. Each year, you can tell which party is in favour with the deciders by which holds a Conference full of illness profiteers and arms dealers.

George Locke
George Locke
8 months ago

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about tech billionaires it’s that they love to talk a big talk about the political situations of countries that they are not even citizens of, getting everything completely wrong in the process. Whether they’re presenting themselves as contrarian and edgy (like Theil and Musk) or woke and lame (like Gates and Cook) it’s all the same to me.

Last edited 8 months ago by George Locke
Josh Allan
Josh Allan
8 months ago

I’m in this picture! I admit I was wondering whether it was Florence sat next to Mr Boghossian…

Last edited 8 months ago by Josh Allan
David McKee
David McKee
8 months ago

Oh, good grief. “They’re all in on it together, I tell you!”
For some unaccountable reason, Thiel missed out George Soros, the Illuminati and shape-changing lizards.

Victoria Cooper
Victoria Cooper
8 months ago

Are they? I wish they would. No point in “growing” (I hate that ungrammatical buzz word) the economy of a country if that country is no longer an entity.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
8 months ago

Thiel (as well as many commentators on this site) can’t see the forest for the trees…
The economic and cultural problems of the West are two sides of the same coin; they are intimately intertwined. The sexual revolution has mired the poorest in their poverty; it bought us a temporary boost in productivity at a permanent reduction in childhood development. While the precious bright few who are truly brilliant and motivated accrue ever more power and wealth, the bulk of society that hasn’t won the genetic lottery stagnates in social systems that favor the immediate gratification of individual desires over any kind of long-term social involvement and obligation. People change lovers and jobs with head-spinning frequency, postpone the responsibilities of adulthood as long as they can, and move immediately from adolescent petulance to mid-life crisis anxiety.
It will be difficult to build any long term economic success in the West without the rejuvenation of our family and social structures. ‘Bowling Alone’ has become ‘Raising Kids Alone’ and ‘Dying Alone.’ No wonder workforce participation has sunk so low… what’s the point of it all? Give me the remote and a bag of crisps, and I’ll pass the time until my Canadian doctor decides it’s time I shuffled on…

Last edited 8 months ago by Kirk Susong
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
8 months ago

Thiel just seems a bit of a twit to be honest. The progressive cultural revolution going through much of the West (whether you are for it or against it) cannot be dismissed as a conspiracy.

Neither Sunak not Starmer whatever there many faults may be by any stretch of the imagination can be said to be bigging up the culture wars – he’s an American and is clueless about UK politics.

Here’s an idea: more than one important phenomenon can be going on at any time in a modern, complex, post industrial society…

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
8 months ago

Some interesting and perhaps brilliant layman’s comments here from this intriguing business figure.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago

Just Unherd trying to harvest a few clicks before the speech is uploaded to YouTube . . .