Our current era is referred to as “the new Gilded Age” so often that it has become a cliche. But of course, the cliche is true: wealth disparity is unprecedented, the poor are increasingly suffering and the middle class is vanishing.
Today’s plutocrats are leeching from society just as their counterparts did during the old Gilded Age, and they’re similarly unashamed of it — even proud.
A major difference between now and then, however, is that the plutocrats of the first Gilded Age didn’t have Twitter and hundreds of real-time media outlets through which to disseminate their assholery in an uninterrupted flow. That phenomenon calls for a new name for a new era. Let’s call it the Dilded Age.
Much of this public jerkiness has come from Wall Street. But over the past few years, Silicon Valley seems to have taken over as the capital of the Dilded Age. Here, the dilding is usually carried out by people who call themselves “libertarian.” On economic matters, there’s no real difference between libertarianism and the “conservatism” that drove the Gilded Age’s plutocrats and baron-monopolists. There isn’t much actual political philosophy (which might be defined as “a theory for how to order the world to achieve the best results of the largest number of people”) behind these people’s worldviews. Then, as now, they were motivated by pure self-interest. “Libertarianism” in these cases is the chosen worldview because it’s considered cooler than just being a conservative. After the ’60s and ’70s, it had become a mark of deep uncoolness to be thought of as conservative, with good reason. If you’re a libertarian, you can still espouse conservative ideas but also smoke weed, watch dirty movies, and dig rock music, man. The libertarian label offers a free out.
In Silicon Valley, Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, is perhaps the best known of the libertarian thinkers. New York magazine’s Christopher Beam called him ” the Johnny Appleseed of futurist libertarians,” noting the vast sums he has given to think tanks and whatnot. Thiel goes further than most in his hatred for government. Many of his appleseeds come in the form of what we used to call “memes” — a word that these days refers to wacky Facebook pictures of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka with various platitudes written across them, but once meant “contagious ideas.” In 2009, Thiel wrote, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”
His apple trees are blooming now. One such is Chamath Palihapitiya. New York (which seems to be all over the Valley sociopath beat) introduced him recently as “not a dumb or heartless man.” But of course that’s not entirely true, as the rest of the magazine’s post makes clear. In an interview with shameless entrepreneur-fluffer Jason Calacanis, quoted by New York, he expressed his joy over the recent government shutdown. He said something about how, when a business shuts down, it’s a horrible thing, but when the government shuts down, “nothing happens and we all move on, because it just doesn’t matter. Stasis in the government is actually good for all of us.”
New York goes on to pick this apart as if it were a real argument by a normal, well-adjusted adult human (both not-dumb and not-heartless). But that’s where we are now: ideas that just a decade ago were thought to be confined to the addlebrained fringe have become mainstream enough to be taken seriously by serious media outlets. And such ideas certainly make up a big part of the guiding ethic of Silicon Valley, encouraged by such shills as Calacanis and PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of the Dilded Age was reported this week by CNET. In opening the tech incubator Y Combinator’s annual “startup school,” Balaji Srinivasan, a co-founder of the biotech startup Counsyl, called for “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit.”
What he meant was, an exit from what the rest of us think of as civil society. He said this explicitly: “We need to build opt-in society, outside the US, run by technology.”
For that to happen, he envisions a mass “opting out,” all under the framework of private enterprise. This, he says, is because civil society has failed, because it refused to take its lead from the tech sector. Eventually, he said “they are going to try to blame the economy on Silicon Valley.”
Welcome to the Dilded Age