Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Libertarian oligarchs are trying to take over San Francisco — and the country

Libertarian oligarchs are trying to take over San Francisco — and the country

Journalist Gil Duran on how a political cult for billionaires is trying to scale up plans for crushing dissent

Episode Summary

Far-right extremism is on the rise in the United States and in many other different countries and for the most part, the individuals leading these movements are Christofascist. That is, they are Christians who have a fascistic and authoritarian viewpoint.

But there is another subset. And while they are not as popular or well-known, they have lots and lots of money.

Another interesting thing about this group is that its leaders market themselves as centrist or moderate, which is unusual on the surface, but it makes sense within the larger historical context of far-right libertarianism labeling itself as somehow apart from the conventional left and right paradigm. They’re at great pains to portray themselves as different from conventional Republicans, and yet they are hosting fundraisers for Donald Trump.

Here at Theory of Change, we’ve covered libertarianism’s connections to 20th century fascism and some of the older history of libertarianism. And joining me today to talk about the more recent trends is Gil Duran. He is the creator of a newsletter called The Nerd Reich about San Francisco politics and right wing extremism.

The transcript of audio is below. Because of its length, some podcast apps and email programs may truncate it. Access the episode page to get the full text. The video of this episode is also available.

Related Content

Audio Chapters

00:00 — Introduction

08:39 — Balaji Srinivasan and the delusions of “Grey” libertarianism

20:21 — How the Covid-19 pandemic shifted the political alliances of libertarian dogmatists

27:29 — What investors have in common with conspiracy theorists

34:26 — Right-wing oligarchs have made it clear they will suppress dissenting speech

39:57 — Techbros love China's centralized authoritarianism

47:37 — Balaji and his friends are ludicrous, but their vast wealth means they need to be taken seriously

54:09 — Why right-wing oligarchs love to call themselves populist

Cover image: Far-right investor Balaji Srinivasan during an October 2023 podcast interview. Photo via screenshot.

Audio Transcript

The following is a machine-generated transcript of the audio that has not been corrected. It is provided for convenience purposes only.

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: This is a really bizarre and a strange movement that you've been writing about but before we get into it, I did just want to get into your background a little bit, for people to understand how you got interested. So right now, you are doing a newsletter that is called FrameLab. Why don't you tell us about that?

GIL DURAN: Sure. FrameLab is a [00:03:00] newsletter that focuses on moral politics and language in politics, and it's very much rooted in the work of Dr. George Lakoff, the Berkeley cognitive scientist who's known for books like Metaphors We Live By and Don't Think of an Elephant, and we've been doing that for a few years. It's a Ghost-powered nonprofit powered newsletter. I also write a newsletter focused on San Francisco tech politics called The Nerd Reich, which focuses on the authoritarian nature of the politics emanating out of Silicon Valley and San Francisco these days.

SHEFFIELD: The Nerd Reich. Yeah, it is the perfect description of what we're talking about here. And it's remarkable that the group of people that we'll be talking about here, they really think of themselves as doing something completely different. It's not part of any tribe. They even use different terms to describe themselves. They call themselves Greys as opposed to Blue and Red, of course, Democrat and Republican. But these people are basically [00:04:00] just secular Republicans. That's what they are.

So, but you know, in in the nineties and the eighties and, let's say early two thousands, if you were a secular conservative or libertarian and you didn't know anything about political science or political ideologies. It was actually possible to think of yourself as a liberal in some sense because the Republican party was doing things that, I mean, they've always been crazy since the Goldwater days, but, they were doing stuff that I think everybody now, looks at it's just absurd, ridiculous. They were trying to censor rap lyrics, use the government to censor those, they thought The Simpsons was controversial. I mean, and they, were saying homosexuality was satanic, literally caused by demons, and so was mental illness.

That's what they were saying back in those days. And so if you had any sort of rationality, you didn't want to be a part of it. [00:05:00] And it seems like a lot of these people, they really did think that they were on the left and, but as the Republican party got better at PR and communications, they sort of tamped those beliefs down out of the public.

So they don't say those things. They still believe those things. And you get little flashes of it every now and again, like the Colorado. Republican party for pride month. They just released a video that, said God hates pride and you should burn pride flags. Like, so you still get, they obviously still believe this stuff.

They just don't talk about it. But for the Silicon Valley, right, they think there's something different. Why don't you, why don't you talk about that? Like they love the word centrist, especially.

DURAN: Yeah, definitely. We've have right now in San Francisco is a big push by tech venture capitalists and their acolytes to capture city government in one of the most progressive cities in the country and push it to the right by adopting a bunch of really right wing policies on [00:06:00] things like criminal justice on things like dealing with poverty and drug addiction. And they've been using words like centrist and moderate to mask this, but it's been increasingly untenable for them to do so, because in a lot of ways.

It's really clear how they are not moderate. They actually have some very extreme political beliefs and affiliations and some extreme behaviors. For example, Gary Tan, who's the CEO of Y Combinator, a very famous startup accelerator in January tweeted, die slow at seven progressive members of the board of supervisors.

Earned him a lot of local infamy, some really bad stories, bad headlines. He had to apologize, said he was just quoting Tupac lyrics. But I'd say that someone who's a moderate, And who's trying to take over the entire city government and who tweets die slow at, elected officials is obviously someone who's quite extreme.

So, we're seeing this development where we're seeing this [00:07:00] movement emerge from San Francisco and Gary Tan is not alone. He's got a bunch of other people just like him here in the Bay Area and in Silicon Valley pushing for a real right wing drift in California's politics, particularly in Northern California.

And so that's something I've been digging into over the past few months. I first got interested because I was the editorial page editor of the San Francisco Examiner and I've lived in the Bay Area most of my adult life. And for the first time ever, it seemed to me the politics here had become so weird, so oddly polarized especially driven by social media.

And I couldn't quite put my finger on what was happening back in 2021, 2022. But in subsequent years, I have done a lot more digging and research and they have also emerged more fully. And I realized that this is all part of a kind of a, of movement a new emergent ideology, which goes by a few [00:08:00] different names but it's very much a right wing tech focused ideology in which the wealthy.

People of Silicon Valley should have ultimate power over society and everything else should be pretty much subservient to their whims. Great example, for instance, Elon Musk, he's pretty much kind of the figurehead, the, major patrons of this, the patron saint of this movement. There are a lot of little mini Elon's though, here in San Francisco doing very similar things.

And you may not have heard of them yet, but probably soon you will.

Balaji Srinivasan's and the delusions of "Grey" libertarianism

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And well, and for two of those people they are uh, Mark Andreessen, who is a billionaire investor. And then another guy, I guess he's a, not quite a billionaire as far as I know. But maybe he is Balaji uh, Srinivasan, who is a crypto, a very big crypto advocate.

And, both of these. guys are kind [00:09:00] of, they seem to be the ones who produce the most output for this, coterie of, oligarchs. And it's still not very good, I have to say. And they think they're so smart, but Srinivasan, he doesn't even know how to spell the word grey, that is spelled with a, with an E instead of an A but he thinks he's so smart and but yeah, like, I mean, and, Srinivasan, he wrote a book that's kind of, sort of, I think you describe it as a bit of a manifesto for these people called Network State.

Do you want to talk about that book and what he's preaching in his, new cult manual?

DURAN: Sure. Like I said before, there was something I couldn't quite put my finger on, but once I had time to do more reading, And to think I came across a book review by a historian named Quinn Slobodian called crack up capitalism.

And this is a book that deals with this movement of tech zillionaires to create their own independent [00:10:00] territories that they can govern new cities, new states, new little countries, even digital countries. Just as you create a new currency with crypto, you create a new country with this new emerging crack, crack up capitalism.

Ideology. Well, in that book, he mentions Balaji Srinivasan and the idea of the network state. And so after I read Slobodin's book, I read the network state and suddenly I had words and ideas to fill in the gaps. The thing that was missing there that I was perceiving was this underlying ideology. And you look a degree further and you find that all these people are connected with people trying to do this in San Francisco.

So then it became very clear in a matter of just establishing the. Connections, which wasn't hard to do because these guys go online a bit a lot and they speak on long podcasts and they kind Of say the quiet part loud the network state idea is the idea that the united states is not long for this world.

The United States is obsolete. He compared it in 2013, [00:11:00] Balaji Srinivasan did, to Microsoft, a company that is on the way out and new companies will emerge and take its place and in the place of countries like the United States and other traditional nations will be these smaller nations that are.

Completely different and completely government governed by basically tech corporations and tech billionaires, basically company towns that will be sovereign and independent and have their own rules and laws. And there's actually a movement right now to create these different territories all around the world.

There's a place called Prospera in Honduras, where they're trying to create a different. Their own little city on this island in Honduras called Rotan. There is a plan to build a city called Praxis in the Mediterranean, Afropolitan in Africa. There are projects in Asia. There's a planned 5 million person city for the United States.

I think it's called Tolosa. So there are actually people trying to make a [00:12:00] move and build these cities inspired by the philosophy of Balaji Sreenivasan. He wasn't necessarily the originator of this idea. Before that, even, you had Peter Thiel funding a movement called Seasteading, which was the idea that we would create these little floating countries out on boats or oil rigs, et cetera, and that those would be countries in the middle of the ocean.

But, no one wants to be trapped in the middle of the ocean with a bunch of annoying entitled and arrogant strangers. So now the movement has kind of moved away to doing it at sea, to doing it on land. And there's actually a City being proposed right now, about 60 miles northeast of San Francisco in Solano County in a very rural area called California forever, where a bunch of these connected tech billionaires like Mark Andreessen, who wrote the cover blurb for Balaji Sreenivasan's network state book.

are investing in trying to build a new 400, 000 person city in Solano County. [00:13:00] So it's not just a theory on nerd podcasts anymore, or in weird, obscure books. It is actually something they're trying to do. And so what I've been doing is trying to Excavate and illuminate that there's an ideology behind what's happening here.

SHEFFIELD: There's a plan and there's a hell of a lot of money behind it too.

Yeah, well, and also there, there's also a precedent even further back than Peter Thiel that. Libertarians for decades have fantasized about moving into the state of New Hampshire and they call it the free state project in which they will take over the entire state because it has, it's very small and has a small amount of people.

And well, it's just not worked at all, uh, because people don't want to vote for their ideas. And so, like that, I think that is the, difference is that essentially, these are just. Conventional sort of, libertarian dogma and, but they've realized they can't market it as [00:14:00] such anymore because if they did, people would run away immediately given how, I mean, and you can see that the libertarian party, I think, they're happy when they get 3 percent in a national for instance, so, Yeah.

And but also this, idea though and you've, gone through and looked at the network state book and, one of the other things that's in there is that, that really does belie this, their, false claims that they're not part of, red or blue is that, Srinivasan literally is telling his acolytes, you need to get rid of the blue.

You need to kick them out. You need to expel them and you need to ally with red and you need to essentially bribe the police and allow them to do whatever they want and turn them into your political and personal enemies. Security force, essentially, right?

DURAN: Yeah, one of the, that was really kind of a shocking moment for me.

I read the network state book and it seemed [00:15:00] a bit out there, but there was nothing in it. That was sort of off the rails. Shocking, then I started digging around Balaji’s and podcast appearances and lo and behold, I find this six hour podcast appearance in two segments, one four hour segment, one two hour segment from September of last year.

And in it, he lays out this nightmarishly dystopian vision for what could happen in San Francisco if tech gets its way. And basically what he spelled out was a situation in which tech aligned citizens who've decided to do whatever tech wants, adopt grey t shirts emblazoned with logos. I think you said like a Bitcoin logo or a Y Combinator logo, different kind of corporate based grey tribes because the grey tribe and the greys buy up entire blocks of the city, start putting in grey politicians and [00:16:00] demanding that things be oriented in the way the grey tech tribe wants them oriented. In addition, they bribe The San Francisco Police Department by providing weekly banquets and jobs for their relatives doing security for tech companies, et cetera, and start establishing grade dominance over the cities, kicking the blues, that is the Democrats out of entire parts of the city that the greys now control and Sreenivasan says that ultimately the goal would be to have like 50, 000 greys marching through the streets.

With the police, flying and real drones in a grey pride parade, and that really kind of blew my mind because this is not the kind of stuff you would even say, a few drinks in at the bar, much less in public. On a podcast that's being published on YouTube while you're supposedly completely sober and in your normal [00:17:00] state of mind.

So that really showed me that there's some really alarming thinking going on with some of these folks, especially when you consider the fact that he has very, close alignment with Gary Tan, who's the guy trying to spearhead the takeover of San Francisco. City Hall as we speak. In fact, in October, a month after Srinivasan's appearance on this podcast, where he talked about the Grey Pride Parade and purging the blues from entire sections of the city, Gary Tan spoke at Srinivasan's Network State Conference.

That was the first Network State Conference in Amsterdam. And in that speech, Gary Tan, in a conversation with Balaji Sreenivasan, says that his project in San Francisco is basically part of the network state project. Previously, two years ago, when he took over Y Combinator, he said he sees Y Combinator as an example of what Balaji talks about when he says the network [00:18:00] state.

So their alignment is really, close. And here is, Balaji Srinivasan, the guide, the thought leader for Garry Tan saying, we're going to do this weird fascist thing and wear grey clothes and kick out the Democrats. And so that was really kind of like a big moment for me realizing just how far gone this ideology is that someone could think they could say that.

And we think it's a good idea to say that and is actually being listened to. And promoted and played up as a important philosopher by the people who are actually trying to do this here. In fact, there's a group right now trying to build a one square mile tech dominated zone in San Francisco called City Campus.

And the idea is that, you buy a property, create co sharing, move all the offices there. And so they're trying to create the grey zone. And in fact. One of the companies, one of the three companies behind this city campus [00:19:00] idea is funded in part by Balaji Sreenivasan. So this is not just something they're talking about in weird podcasts.

This is actually something they're trying to do. And I got concerned because no one who's reading a newspaper in San Francisco today, for the most part, is hearing anything about this stuff. You're hearing that the techs are funding the moderates against the progressives. It's a very simple, dumbed down narrative.

And I felt like somebody needed to start telling the real story. And so that's why I started writing about these things.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. and it's important to really be aware of, because I do think that, the stuff that Andreessen and Balaji and other people say is just, it's so ludicrous. On its face that it's people don't take it seriously.

And, like, I in a lot of ways Balaji, and he goes by his first name. We should note that. So we're not being disrespectful by referring to him in that manner. That he he, sounds just [00:20:00] like, you're crazy. Uncle, Ron Paul loving uncle. He talks just the same way as him, but what's dangerous is that he has billions of dollars at his disposal.

Whereas your uncle, everybody tries to avoid him at the holiday family parties. And

DURAN: Facebook posts. Yeah.

How the Covid-19 pandemic shifted the political alliances of libertarian dogmatists

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And so, so this is, these are serious, issues. And and, just to go back to kind of the ideological connection to it. yeah. So the, political spectrum for most of the, modern American history it was largely kind of like this, that that politics is as libertarians often demand to that people say that it's an X Y graph. And so, Then, rather than a complete linear graph, and so essentially we have that over on the, left side, Marxism describes itself as sort of a science of politics and everything that they believe is rational.

And so that's why, and again, this is what they say themselves, whether they do that or not, that's, a different thing. But so [00:21:00] Marxism is basically at the far left of the political spectrum. And then, you go through social democracy or progressivism. Then we've got liberalism over here. As we move toward the center, religious democracy.

So that would be like in more particularly in, in Europe and other countries where there are, Christian Democrat parties such as Angela Merkel's, who they believe in Christianity as a social framework, but they also are not hostile to personal freedoms and things like that.

And then over here, we got conservatism and libertarianism is kind of this very large circle that. can be slightly, to the left of center. And that's where things were, as I was saying earlier during the nineties and whatnot, that, the libertarians weren't fans of impeaching Bill Clinton for lying about sex.

They weren't, they advocated for marijuana legalization and, sex work legalization, et cetera. But as time has gone on, and I'd say, especially during the COVID pandemic, [00:22:00] Politics has sort of reconfigured, and now the ideology of conspiracism is really kind of the main underlying, the biggest ideology that exists now, and that's, Where if we think of politics as about who, do you trust and what do you want, conspiracists doesn't trust any institution and that's how you can go from any ideology to any of the other ones.

And then libertarianism, instead of being a centrist thing now. Is a far right thing. And I think that's kind of what we're seeing there. And, there is, of course, as you can see on the chart, that there's a direct linkage between libertarianism and fascism and, as things have moved along with some of these Big tech executives, they are pretty much, almost explicitly saying that they, they kind of like fascism.

They, are very interested in that. And Peter Thiel, as an [00:23:00] example, he he was going to speak at a group that has, direct ties to former Nazis. Peter Thiel was going to be their featured speaker before the Southern Poverty Law Center had exposed him in that regard. And so it should be concerning to more people, but I think the complexity of it makes it, people get reluctant to be interested in it. I don't know. What do you think?

DURAN: Well, it'll, get a lot more interesting real quick here because we're starting to see some of these Silicon Valley guys, including some who were supposedly Democrats or moderates in previous cycles now become pro Trump.

Today, there's a fundraiser in San Francisco for Donald Trump. And one of the co hosts, Shamath Palihapitthaya was a democratic megadonor a few years ago, who even considered running for governor of California on a moderate platform. And now he's gone full Trump, full MAGA in 24, which is not normal.

But I think part of what you're explaining [00:24:00] is that I think these tech guys. Well, all of them may not align with the Republican party or traditional Republican party in certain ways on certain social issues, like maybe gay rights in some instances, they see the Republican party is the vehicle through which they can get what they want the most and the most quickly.

Trump is willing to do anything for support and for money. At this point, he made a huge offer to the oil industry, give me money and I'll give you what you want. Same thing for crypto. So Trump is like making it clear. This is government for sale. And these guys have a lot of money and they want to buy that government.

They want to be in charge. And so we were seeing this alignment, this overt alignment between Silicon Valley tech figures and these authoritarian fascists. Elements of the Republican party as expressed and exemplified by the leader of the party, Donald Trump. And so I think it's going to become harder and harder to ignore.

And some people are already on it. Adrian LaFrance, the executive editor of the [00:25:00] Atlantic wrote an entire piece on the rise of techno authoritarianism, and we've been starting to see it bubble up. I do think it's, a struggle for the mainstream political media to understand. They still want to deal with these very simplistic, moderate, liberal, right wing ideas.

But I think when you have Silicon Valley donors who claimed they were Democrats until in previous cycles, now going all for Trump, post January 6th, post. Felony convictions. I think that's pretty much a red alarm. You got to say, Hey, you know what? Maybe things are not working the way they've always worked.

Maybe something has fundamentally changed in our politics and maybe it's quite dangerous and something we need to inform our readers about because American democracy is at stake. And so that's very much what we see here is that they have really gone to the far, far, right. And it seems to me like the pandemic in some ways accelerated this because all of us went through a hard time during the [00:26:00] pandemic, it was a transformational moment and I, and the conspiracism you talk about, I remember I was in Sacramento at the time and I went to a certain yoga studio and watching them go full on anti vax, anti lockdown, open the studio anyway, was a really amazing.

And shocking thing to see because, a few months earlier, this had been a normal thing. You go to your yoga class, everybody seems normal and nice. And it really became a mask off moment for a lot of people. And so even people who are on the woo kind of left shifted into real conspiracism mode.

And I call it the slippery slope from essential oils into. Full on fascism. So, that's what we saw there. You saw that with different people and people felt threatened or businesses were threatened. It was a tough time for a lot of people. And so coming out of that, it seems like a lot of these Silicon Valley guys also got.

A lot more radicalized. They also got a lot richer [00:27:00] and we're seeing that convergence now in 24, they see American democracy as ripe for disruption and they see betting on Trump as the quickest way to do that. And I'm not entirely convinced that they're wrong. We're going to find out in November whether they're wrong or they're right.

And so I think people need to be informed. People can only make a decision. If they know what's going on. And right now, I think a lot of people do not know what's going on.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, it's true.

What investors have in common with conspiracy theorists

SHEFFIELD: And the other thing about it is that, this, radicalization that did happen during the pandemic what it did is that it, it revealed and Paul Krugman last year, I think it was, he, wrote a column talking about how that there are a lot of similarities between sort of the epistemology of conspiracy and in, in sort of the investment banker epistemology as well, because the thing about investment making that I think a lot of people don't realize is that, the people who get rich off of [00:28:00] investing in these companies, They're not particularly skilled at anything.

They don't know how to, create CPUs. They don't know how to create graphics cards or laptop designs or servers. They don't know how to do any of that stuff. None of them have any experience with, almost none of them have at this point, almost none of them have any experience with that stuff and what they were is just in the right place at the right time.

And essentially. They play with house money, and I mean that in the casino sense that, your odds of winning decrease if you're in a casino, the longer you're there because you don't have as much money like that's ultimately what a game of chance is about is that whoever can play the longest wins.

Is going to win. Like generally speaking, that's how it works. Just again, because the odds catch up to you after a while, if you did happen to


Especially if they're not 50 50, right? So, but if you're in a, economic system where you are [00:29:00] playing with billions of dollars, if you make a hundred faulty investments and one correct, investment.

Then people think you're a genius. But in fact, you are kind of a failure. Like if you had a 0. 001 batting average as a baseball player, people would think you're terrible. And so, but in the investment world, it, it doesn't work that way. And so, But, and so, but a lot of investment is just simply based on hunches that, you think well, this thing might work, so I'm going to give them money.

And it's not based on real, research or because in the, and in many cases, like if you're creating something completely new and different. Any sort of research, quote unquote, or numbers that you can provide are pulled out of your ass. Like they're not real to say that I predict that, 20 million people will download my app.

Well, you don't have any real clue of what you're talking about and, anybody else could make completely different [00:30:00] numbers. So it really is about hunches. And guess what? That is what conspiracism as a thinking is also about, because the Alex Jones fan. They can't prove that COVID was, designed in a lab by Anthony Fauci to kill and to kill the world.

They can't prove that at all, but they still choose to believe it because it fits their priors. And it makes sense to them. It's an intuitive reasoning type of thinking. And so this is why I think that they became so radicalized because by the pandemic, because it, Hit to the core of how they think and, how they operate on a daily basis.

And then they realized, Oh, Hey, you know what? The right wing Christians are also against evidence based thinking. They're also choosing to believe things that they cannot prove because it makes them feel good. And so that's fundamentally why I think they've. Decided to go full bore for the Republican party in the same way, [00:31:00] to be honest, like, like Charles Koch and some of these other, right wing older and another generation of right wing oligarchs did.

I mean, David Koch ran for president in 1980 on the Libertarian ticket. And eventually he realized, oh, well, no one's going to vote for a Grey or in his case, a Yellow as the Libertarian color is. And so this is like, these people are just, they're, just retracing everything and yet they think that they're amazing innovators and super smart but really they invented the wheel 2000 years afterward, someone else.

DURAN: And they belong nowhere near public policy. They have no idea what they're talking about. They're so clueless and out of touch and lacking in curiosity and maturity. There's a lot of serious problems in society. But you don't just kind of come in with your bad ideas and your lack of research and start doing all the stuff that we know already failed.

And that's what really, concerns me about these guys. I have seen no evidence that they [00:32:00] really care about what's happening to people and what people need. I see evidence that they believe they should have all the power and they should make all the decisions. And as far as I can tell their plan for San Francisco is just to kick out anybody who's poor and anybody who doesn't work for them and called that a successful society.

And that's really not how things work in this country. So. I really think that the money goes to their head and they think that because they made a lot of money making a few good guesses that they are now entitled to control everything. And that's just not how it works. I spent about 15 years in politics and government.

After I started as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury news during the first dot com boom, and then Craigslist came along, sucked up all the revenue. There was the dot com bubble crash, and then was no longer easy to work at a newspaper, ended up working in blue collar jobs for a few years, then met Jerry Brown, who was then the mayor of Oakland.

And that was the beginning of a career in politics. Well, I've worked for two mayors. I've worked for the governor of California and the problems are [00:33:00] very serious. They're some of them almost seem intractable and it takes a lot of knowledge and a lot of ability to create consensus and to get voter approval to get anything done in.

Politics and mistakes get made wrong approaches are taken. Sometimes it takes decades to unwind them. And these tech want to be authoritarians seem to have no idea or inkling of that and no interest in it either. They just think it'll be different because they do it. They think that they are special.

And they're really not and the ideas they have have already failed, they, they, took out the progressive district attorney of San Francisco because they blamed him for all crime and drug dealing and overdoses in the city. Well, there's still crime and drug dealing and overdoses in the city, even though you got a new day.

Anybody who's been in politics could have told you that. Crime rates are higher in Republican states with conservative laws. The issue there is not that you have to be harsh with people and then that's going to be a solution, but they don't seem to be really [00:34:00] interested in inspecting their own deficiencies or learning anything.

They're just interested in hearing them, their own selves speak and imposing this very sort of tech authoritarian vision on everybody. But it's not really clear to me what the end game is because, The one thing I know that they don't, even though I don't have billions of dollars or millions of dollars, is that they have no idea what they're doing and they're going to completely fail.

Right-wing oligarchs have made it clear they will suppress dissenting speech

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And well, and the other, I think thing that is has also become evident with these guys besides their lack of policies and understanding of history and, whatnot is that. They also, they love to, to claim that they're for absolute free speech, that's what they want. But in practice, they definitely do not like free speech.

And especially if it's regarding free speech about them. And that's something that you had talked about in your piece for the new Republican in terms of like, Balaji, he [00:35:00] is encouraged I guess, yeah, he's encouraged his followers to attack journalists and Elon Musk obviously is very big on doing that as well.

And they're aligning with their fascist leader, Donald Trump, who says he wants to, crack down on, the media and is constantly trying to cancel anyone who criticizes him on Fox news or elsewhere that basically in their minds, unless something is a hundred percent pro by, biased in favor of them, then it's unfair.

And they have no concept of public dialogue and listening to opinions that disagree from them. And I mean, They're then they're made it clear. Like this is a core seems to be a core tenant of their belief system that you will not be able to criticize.

DURAN: Yeah, it's about power and who has power. It's about me speech, not free speech.

You should be able to say Nazi stuff, but you'll get flagged now, I think, if you say cisgender, which regardless of how you feel [00:36:00] about that concept should not be a cancelable offense on Twitter. And, but look, I'm, sort of prejudiced here because I was one of the journalists banned from Twitter.

When Elon took over, I was banned from Twitter for 12 months for asking a question. The question was it was the time he had banned the Elon jet account that was tracking his account. And then he banned someone who wrote a story about the Elon jet account. So I asked if you could be banned for asking about a ban.

Of an account that was banned for mentioning this other account that was banned. And I got banned for that. So Elon Musk doesn't believe in free speech. Elon Musk is an authoritarian. Elon Musk believes that whatever he decides should be free speech is free speech and whatever he doesn't agree with should not be free speech.

And that's pretty much how everything will work if these guys get their way. So, it's very much a hierarchical structure George Lakoff, who we mentioned earlier, who I do a lot of work with, kind of has spelled out something called the conservative moral [00:37:00] hierarchy. And at the top of that, it's God over man.

And then it's sort of man over nature and men over women and white men over others and on. Well, I think what the tech authoritarians are doing is pretty much getting rid of God over man and making it sort of tech. Over man founders over man. I think they see themselves as God in this scenario and they believe therefore they should be able to sort of capriciously decide the rules and sort of return us to a kind of a feudal, a techno feudal society where they are the Lords and the masters and the rest of us are at their mercy and at their whims.

And I really think that's what's at stake. Right now, because they see, again, they see some vulnerabilities here. And I can't say I totally disagree with them. The, our political system is very ripe for disruption. Democracy is hanging on by a, Gossamer thread. The Republican party is sort of an empty vessel that they can take over and inhabit and push [00:38:00] it because they have the money, which is the one thing Trump really wants and worships to do that.

They can buy off the Republican party and make it do what they want. Journalism, they're all about now start owning their own media, parallel media, starting their own newspapers, taking over Twitter, turning it into something completely different, look at the traditional press is dying and something else is going to take its place.

And if they get their way, it will be oppressed that answers to them that is willing to publish pure fiction. If it serves their purposes, and in the meantime, you have all these traditional reporters who won't have jobs in 5 to 10 years trying to still do the same thing they always do and kind of report in a very straightforward, logical way, while the bottom is literally falling out from.

Under them. And so I do see that there's some real vulnerabilities we have right now in terms of the things that have upheld democratic society. And it doesn't seem like people are alarmed to the level that they need to be about what's happening. And so that's one place where I do kind of agree with these [00:39:00] guys is that they do see something that is exploitable.

And manipulative and they are taking action to make those things happen and so they're not completely wrong about that. I just don't think that once they have the power, they're going to do anything except create a very dangerous and volatile situation that will end with a very bad revolution against anybody who's wealthy and and, a grey, that's also another thing that history shows us, the Greeks dealt with all these ideas along 2, 500 years ago, they knew what happens when you have plutocracy and oligarchy and autocracy.

And the democracy we have, the system we have is very much based on an accrued knowledge over thousands of years that is not going to be disrupted by some. Crypto bro who loses a million dollars in a bet over the price of Bitcoin, which is what Balaji did back in 2021 or something.

Techbros love China's centralized authoritarianism

SHEFFIELD: And the other thing is that the approach, I mean, the approach that they want is [00:40:00] really not. that different from command economy of China in a lot of ways, like that, is the paradox is that and you do see that for instance, like Elon Musk loves China. He, says how great it is all the time.

Like they have all kinds of, control over his companies and factories in China. But the reality is, the, people who live in China, it's not a good situation for them. Their economy is, much more volatile and, uh, it has some serious problems and they've got, they wasted all this money on projects that they thought were going to work.

They've wasted literally hundreds of billions of dollars on these failed cities with build on the same principle that we've been talking about today. Like the ghost cities of China, like if, people in the audience, if you haven't looked those up, I do encourage you to do that. Like China has completely failed as a, command economy. But in, in the minds of these, [00:41:00] uneducated ignorant right wing oligarchs, they, they don't, they have no knowledge of history. They don't understand that all of these things that they want, as you said, have been tried before and failed. And, but, essentially the difference for them as well.

I didn't do it. So, so therefore it will work this time because I'm, smarter than those other guys. And it's like, it's the same concept. It's just not how it works.

DURAN: And, to some degree, it's all a hustle, right? It's all short term hustle to get as much as you can by telling whatever story you got to tell that will attract the capital and money and make things work in your favor.

I mean, even if you strip it all the weird grey. authoritarian nightmare weirdness of Balaji's theory you still have a plan to take all this money from the cloud, all this wealth that's kind of in some abstract form, buy up real estate and property and with it political power, right? So, they, also pushing really, it's hard to, it's impossible to disentangle the [00:42:00] network state idea from AI.

They're kind of one in the same. They're really pushing it as there's going to be this big boom based on AI. So invest in all our companies, give us all this money. And so whether or not the governing part works out, they will still have massive amounts of more wealth at the end of this narrative cycle.

Right. So again, it's sort of that casino model of pumping this, who cares if the political experiment fails, as long as, certain people become billionaires or trillionaires in this next big hype cycle. So there's multiple layers to it.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. and it's, it is, I mean, basically essentially they're, trying to apply the, business model of private equity investment to government.

So, a lot of, many of these private equity funds. They don't actually build successful businesses. What they do is they buy existing businesses, strip them to the, for parts, sell them off and then sell the carcass at the end of the day. And, say, wow, look at all this money we made. But in fact, they [00:43:00] destroyed the very thing that they claimed that they were trying to save in the beginning. That's, their view of government. That's what they want to do to government.

DURAN: Yeah. Gary Tannis turned Y Combinator into not just a company that's trying to bet on startups, but that's also trying to bet on little local startup political movements and politicians.

And they're making a lot of bad bets. They might make one or two. Right. So he's turned it into an overtly political organization that is literally trying to combinate a way to get power. And, we've got kind of different little modes, little characters they've invented to try to gain power some better than others, but it's very much applying that metaphor of, we're going to take over.

Government and can create new forms of government, just like we've done this with certain businesses, but I think they'll find that it's a lot more complex. In government and the problems because they involve [00:44:00] people you can't necessarily control are harder to solve. But another important point, I would say that Balaji makes that isn't talked about enough, including in my writing, is that government is the only trillionaire.

Government has the most money. So why are we allowing all these politicians and Democrats to control that massive spigot of money and on both in local budgets and in state budgets and in national federal budgets, when we could have that massive power turned to our own purposes. So then we can get into our outer space or conquer death through transhumanism.

We haven't talked to really about the whole bundle of weird beliefs that unite these folks, but it's not just about taking over San Francisco and having the grey uniforms there into things like transhumanism, they think. That some of them are going to live forever. They found a way to beat death. They believe.

SHEFFIELD: And actually, oh, and I'm sorry. And for the audience [00:45:00] we, do have a an entire episode about this, the whole TESCREAL idea.

DURAN: Yeah, exactly. Oh, good. I'll listen to that one. So you guys then know about TESCREAL and, Gary Tan views himself as an effective accelerationist. And it's about, we got to do whatever we got to, we are entitled to do whatever it takes to make the human species multi planetary and accelerate into this amazing future that we're going to create. Therefore, anything we do is justified and everybody should get out of our way. It's basically an ideology of tech supremacy that borders on a religious belief, right?

It's very culty. Right, all cult leaders tell the story.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah, Operationally, it's no different than a evangelical authoritarian leader who says, my goal is to bring about the rapture and so therefore I'm going to give Israel all the money that I can and encourage it to have as many wars as it can and will invade as many countries in the Middle East as we want and with the end [00:46:00] goal of Armageddon and having Jesus come to earth and I will bring that to pass.

It's really no different than that vision operationally. Like the justification is different. , but it works the same.

DURAN: Well in San Francisco in the seventies, we had a religious leader who was very powerful and very charismatic, and he decided to go to South America and start his own little city. It was called Jonestown, and 900 people died in the end drinking the Kool-Aid.

So I would call Jim Jones, perhaps the network state OG, because this has all been tried before in different forms. They're not creating anything new. And it's very dangerous to play with these ideas in this way. And there's an increasing tone of violence rising in San Francisco, Bay Area politics. And this is an area where we, where people actually do get killed in politics.

There's been a lot of violence assassinations over the years. And so that's another part of what they're doing. I wrote about this on the nerd Reich recently pushing this sort of violent Tone, which is very disturbing [00:47:00] to me. We can disagree on a lot of things on local politics, but the moment we're sort of liking pictures of guns being pointed at politicians, things of this nature, it gets kind of scary.

And so that's why I bring Jim Jones into it because it's not an exaggeration to say things are getting really scary with these tech guys in their politics, and I don't think it's going to end well.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. No, it isn't. And, that is why people have to, who are against, I mean, the majority of people don't like these ideas and they have to pay attention and they have to tell their friends and their family members, about it.

Balaji and his friends are ludicrous, but their vast wealth means they need to be taken seriously

SHEFFIELD: Kind of the organizing problem for the left in the United States or the center left, we'll say, is that the right has become so bizarre, so Baroque, so fascistic that it's almost unbelievable what they want and what they say, and, and, it's just this constant stream of horribleness. And so, so [00:48:00] oftentimes people will just be so disgusted by it that they just completely tune it out. I don't want to hear about that. This is depressing. This is awful. Or they don't believe it's real. Like, the, very common reaction to Balaji and his things that he's saying, people just say, Oh, this guy's a clown.

This guy's a clown. He's ridiculous. He's a loser, whatever. Like that, I see people say that all the time about him. I see people say that about Marc Andreessen, about Elon Musk, and it's like, did you not pay attention to what, people said about Donald Trump in 2015? Like, like I, I wrote an analysis at the end of, November of 2015 saying Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination and here's why.

And when I published it, I got so much pushback from people saying, oh, this is ridiculous. You are exaggerating your, this is nonsense, Matt. No way would this ever happen. And, then it did. And so, and we're kind of, Stuck seeing this [00:49:00] happen again with the, techno fascist.

Right. It seems like, and hopefully it doesn't repeat in that way.

DURAN: Well, we'll see if not, they'll try out some new models and modes, right. They're going to keep iterating, but I think something that gives me hope is. That we do have a tremendous amount of power as democracy loving people. They are a small minority trying a really dangerous act here.

And if they fail, we're going to all see exactly who they are. And we're going to know that going forward and we can take appropriate measures, hopefully to protect society from any further attacks or incursions of this kind. In Solano County, where a group of billionaires is trying to build this tech utopia called.

California forever. Solano is about 60 miles northeast of San Francisco, kind of a rural area, mostly Democrat, but pretty mixed in the billionaire secretly bought like tens of thousands of acres of property and are trying to impose this 400, 000 person vision for [00:50:00] a city on the county, and they have really united Democrats and Republicans against them.

The, Democrats in 2024 are uniting with Republicans in 2024 to say no to the billionaire project because they know that whatever it is, these billionaires want, and they all see different reasons for disliking them and their project that this is not the way things should work with just these wealthy groups of individuals imposing entirely new.

Entities upon us. And so that gives me some hope. And if people wake up and they have knowledge and they're told what's happening, I think there'll be a major pendulum swing. And I think we'll see these Silicon Valley types go back to acting really nice and progressive and appreciating things like diversity and democracy, because right now they seem to think they can get away with anything.

And they're making a big bet and we've got to make a big bet in the opposite direction and show them that in this country, it's a government of the people. By the people and for the people, not government of the billionaires, by the billionaires and for the billionaires.

SHEFFIELD: [00:51:00] Yeah. And, people, and some of that also includes supporting independent media, like that's and not cause you know, the New York times doesn't need your money.

Washington post doesn't need your money, regular, small podcasters and writers and like, That's and, journalists that you see, trying to do their thing on, on, Substack or Ghost or whatever, like that's who needs your support here. Don't throw your money away on the Atlantic or, some big media corporation, like don't do that.

This is what you should not be subscribing to those things with your money. There's enough of us out there that we could make a difference if more people understood that, I think.

DURAN: Well, I mean, I read and subscribe to all of those things, but I'd say it's important to find the people doing the important local work, or the important work that's focused on the issues that matter that you care about, and also support them.

If you can, I don't expect to make a living totally off of my newsletter. It's nice when people subscribe and pay, it certainly helps keep me [00:52:00] motivated and keep me believing. But I think we've got a, and you want to make sure whoever you're paying or subscribing to is, doing something that's based on the general principles of truth, of facts, things you can verify that represent kind of the full reality.

Cause there's some stuff out there that's not like that, but I definitely think that going forward. We do have to invest more in independent media because it's not clear as more and more outlets fall prey to private equity or billionaires that we're always going to get the same level of truth or reporting that we got out of some of those institutions and look at the Washington Post is kind of in the middle of a big takeover by Editors who just kind of kicking out people making it clear things are not going to work the way they've traditionally worked.

And so I think that kind of thing is going to get bigger and more pronounced. And I do think we're going to need to find new ways to do journalism that are not dependent on corporate funded entities or [00:53:00] investment funded publications. And it's dangerous because there's a lot of room there for propagandists and disinformationists.

I mean, look at Michael Schellenberger's got 108, 000 subscribers on a mostly paywalled sub stack newsletter. The guy's just publishing pure fiction. So there is a degree to which we have to be careful about who we trust and not assume that because somebody's publishing something that they are a Telling the truth or using journalistic principles.

But I, for myself have lost the dream of working for a mainstream publication and think that the journalism I'm going to do in my lifetime is going to be very independent what I'm doing now. And it may be something that I'm doing on the side like this. I'm not sitting around all day writing a newsletter.

This is something I do on the weekends at nights when I have some free time during the day. And but I think we're going to have to find ways to tell each other what the truth is and keep each other informed because. The billionaires are going to be able to buy everything at some point.

That's one thing their money will get them. And we have [00:54:00] no guarantees that, then how do we get information? how do we know what to believe or what's going on?

Why right-wing oligarchs love to call themselves populist

SHEFFIELD: And yeah, well, and you see that, sorry, and you do see that, like with the there's this just enormous profusion of right wing TV news, quote unquote, networks, like alternatives to Fox News.

So, there's Newsmax, there's Real America's Voice, there's there's a, there's Trinity Network Television, which is or Like a right wing evangelical. there's, so many and, there's a, of the right side broadcasting network, all of these people are just getting, tons of oligarch money which is really ironic because at the same time that this is happening and websites like the daily caller and other places that the oligarchs are buying up all these institution right wing oligarchs are, they also are trying to say that they are populist that they represent the people, an average person.

And [00:55:00] I think, Elon Musk pushes that a lot, and his, friend Jason Calisanes pushes that a lot. And Balaji pushes that a lot also. Like, they claim that they actually are in favor of the regular common person and that they're populist. Like they, like they love to say that J. D. Vance is a populist, the guy who's literally Peter Thiel's errand boy. Or that Donald Trump is a populist. The idea that Donald Trump is a populist is so patently absurd. The guy, spent his entire career. Cheating and refusing to pay small contractors who did work for him. Like that is the one consistent thing that Donald Trump has been in his whole life is that, is a guy who stiffs the contractors.

but it, is, it does seem like, at least to some people that this is. This is an appealing narrative of the, these are just guys who want to innovate. They want the freedom to innovate. And I'm a populist too. I can be rich if I just believe in [00:56:00] them enough or something like that.

Like that's what they're pushing to people and some people buy it.

DURAN: Yeah. Well, claiming things are popular is an important part of persuasion. To make undecided people think, Oh, that's what's happening. This is where the movement is. This is what's popular. And so they try to tap into that because, the, social effect of people believing that something that everyone else is doing thing or thinks that thing is good.

But yeah, don't never trust the. Populous messages from people who wouldn't give you the time of day and probably, haven't been anywhere around normal people for a very long time. These people are all traveling in bubbles and places where they're just sort of worshipped or treated with great respect.

And so, you're not going to see them out there on the shaking hands and knocking on doors and, being of the people. And but again The big lie is really popular with these folks. So the bigger, the lie, we're the popular ones. We're working for the common people. The more you can see their right wing leanings, because they have no problem with that level of, [00:57:00] disinformation and misdirection.

And so it's not really surprising. Hypocrisy is not surprising. Lying is not surprising. It's all part of the strategy. And I think we're going to see an exponential increase soon as Elon's. Twitter tries to make a big game changing difference in this election, aided in part by these early-stage AI shenanigans.

So, the lies are going to get bigger, the lies are going to get better, and the lies are going to get harder and harder to disbelieve because we'll be seeing them with our own eyes. And the yeah, I mean, you've seen some of these photos they've generated of Trump, like, surrounded by African Americans at a barbecue looking popular.

So all this AI generated stuff that would never actually happen in real life. And we're going to see more of that. It's going to become more sophisticated. And that's why I've been, we've had some Democrats doing ads using AI video, and I've been against that because once that's the game, man, it's going to really be really hard for people to know what's [00:58:00] up and what's down.

So, yeah, I think there's, a lot more to come on this and soon. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, the thing people can do is, yeah, pay attention and help your friends get educated. As well. So. All right. Well, let's see. Is there anything else you think we need to cover here, or do you think we hit all the bases?

DURAN: I think we, we hit a lot. Give people a lot to think about.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. Well, great. All right, well, so, Gil Duran for people who want to keep up with your stuff what's your recommendations for,

DURAN: You can follow me at thenerdreich.com. I'm also on Twitter at GilDuran76, and you can easily find me on any other social media platforms.

As well, I occasionally write for the New Republic and the San Francisco Chronicle, but I'd say if you, uh, subscribe to the Nerd Reich, then you'll kind of be up to date on whatever I'm up to.

SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, sounds good. I encourage everybody to do that. Thanks for being here.

DURAN: Thanks for having me.

SHEFFIELD: All right. So that is the program for today. I appreciate everybody [00:59:00] joining us for the conversation. And if you want to get more, just go to theoryofchange.show where you can get the video, audio, and transcript of all the episodes and my thanks, especially to the paid subscribing members. Thank you very much for your support.

You're making this possible. But we also do have free subscriptions if you can't afford to do that right now. And I do also encourage everybody to go to flux. community where you can get the archives of this program and also my other one, Doomscroll, and other articles that we publish as well. And I appreciate everybody who signs up and follows us and all that good stuff.

If you can leave a nice review on your favorite podcast platforms that's much appreciated. And if you're on YouTube, please do click the like and subscribe button as well. All right. So that will do it for this one. I will see you next time.

Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? Join Matthew Sheffield and his guests as they explore larger trends and intersections in politics, religion, technology, and media.