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The Dystopians

The Tech Baron Seeking to Purge San Francisco of “Blues”

If Balaji Srinivasan is any guide, then the Silicon Valley plutocrats are definitely not OK.

Balaji Srinivasan speaks during the Singapore Fintech Festival in 2022.
Bryan van der Beek/Getty Images
Balaji Srinivasan speaks during the Singapore Fintech Festival in 2022.

To fully grasp the current situation in San Francisco, where venture capitalists are trying to take control of City Hall, you must listen to Balaji Srinivasan. Before you do, steel yourself for what’s to come: A normal person could easily mistake his rambling train wrecks of thought for a crackpot’s ravings, but influential Silicon Valley billionaires regard him as a genius.

“Balaji has the highest rate of output per minute of good new ideas of anybody I’ve ever met,” wrote Marc Andreessen, co-founder of the V.C. firm Andreessen-Horowitz, in a blurb for Balaji’s 2022 book, The Network State: How to Start a New Country. The book outlines a plan for tech plutocrats to exit democracy and establish new sovereign territories. I mentioned Balaji’s ideas in two previous stories about Network State–related efforts in California—a proposed tech colony called California Forever and the tech-funded campaign to capture San Francisco’s government.

Balaji, a 43-year-old Long Island native who goes by his first name, has a solid Valley pedigree: He earned multiple degrees from Stanford University, founded multiple startups, became a partner at Andreessen-Horowitz and then served as chief technology officer at Coinbase. He is also the leader of a cultish and increasingly strident neo-reactionary tech political movement that sees American democracy as an enemy. In 2013, a New York Times story headlined “Silicon Valley Roused by Secession Call” described a speech in which he “told a group of young entrepreneurs that the United States had become ‘the Microsoft of nations’: outdated and obsolescent.”

“The speech won roars from the audience at Y Combinator, a leading start-up incubator,” reported the Times. Balaji paints a bleak picture of a dystopian future in a U.S. in chaos and decline, but his prophecies sometimes fall short. Last year, he lost $1 million in a public bet after wrongly predicting a massive surge in the price of Bitcoin.

Still, his appetite for autocracy is bottomless. Last October, Balaji hosted the first-ever Network State Conference. Garry Tan—the current Y Combinator CEO who’s attempting to spearhead a political takeover of San Francisco—participated in an interview with Balaji and cast the effort as part of the Network State movement. Tan, who made headlines in January after tweeting “die slow motherfuckers” at local progressive politicians, frames his campaign as an experiment in “moderate” politics. But in a podcast interview one month before the conference, Balaji laid out a more disturbing and extreme vision.

“What I’m really calling for is something like tech Zionism,” he said, after comparing his movement to those started by the biblical Abraham, Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith (founder of Mormonism), Theodor Herzl (“spiritual father” of the state of Israel), and Lee Kuan Yew (former authoritarian ruler of Singapore). Balaji then revealed his shocking ideas for a tech-governed city where citizens loyal to tech companies would form a new political tribe clad in gray t-shirts. “And if you see another Gray on the street … you do the nod,” he said, during a four-hour talk on the Moment of Zen podcast. “You’re a fellow Gray.”

The Grays’ shirts would feature “Bitcoin or Elon or other kinds of logos … Y Combinator is a good one for the city of San Francisco in particular.” Grays would also receive special ID cards providing access to exclusive, Gray-controlled sectors of the city. In addition, the Grays would make an alliance with the police department, funding weekly “policeman’s banquets” to win them over.

“Grays should embrace the police, okay? All-in on the police,” said Srinivasan. “What does that mean? That’s, as I said, banquets. That means every policeman’s son, daughter, wife, cousin, you know, sibling, whatever, should get a job at a tech company in security.”

In exchange for extra food and jobs, cops would pledge loyalty to the Grays. Srinivasan recommends asking officers a series of questions to ascertain their political leanings. For example: “Did you want to take the sign off of Elon’s building?”

This refers to the August 2023 incident in which Elon Musk illegally installed a large flashing X logo atop Twitter headquarters, in violation of building safety codes. City inspectors forced him to remove it. This was the second time Musk had run afoul of the city in his desire to refurbish his headquarters: In July, police briefly halted his attempt to pry the “Twitter” signage from the building’s exterior. But in Balaji’s dystopia, he implies that officers loyal to the Grays would let Musk do as he pleases (democratically inclined officers, he suggests, can be paid to retire).

Simply put, there is a ton of fascist-chic cosplay involved. Once an officer joins the Grays, they get a special uniform designed by their tech overlords. The Grays will also donate heavily to police charities and “merge the Gray and police social networks.” Then, in a show of force, they’ll march through the city together.

“A huge win would be a Gray Pride parade with 50,000 Grays,” said Srinivasan. “That would start to say: ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ You have the A.I. Flying Spaghetti Monster. You have the Bitcoin parade. You have the drones flying overhead in formation.... You have bubbling genetic experiments on beakers.… You have the police at the Gray Pride parade. They’re flying the Anduril drones …”

Everyone would be welcome at the Gray Pride marcheveryone, that is, except the Blues. Srinivasan defines the Blue political tribe as the liberal voters he implies are responsible for the city’s problems. Blues will be banned from the Gray-controlled zones, said Balaji, unlike Republicans (“Reds”).

“Reds should be welcomed there, and people should wear their tribal colors,” said Srinivasan, who compared his color-coded apartheid system to the Bloods vs. Crips gang rivalry. “No Blues should be welcomed there.”

While the Blues would be excluded, they would not be forgotten. Srinivasan imagines public screenings of anti-Blue propaganda films: “In addition to celebrating Gray and celebrating Red, you should have movies shown about Blue abuses.… There should be lots of stories about what Blues are doing that is bad.”

Balaji goes on—and on. The Grays will rename city streets after tech figures and erect public monuments to memorialize the alleged horrors of progressive Democratic governance. Corporate logos and signs will fill the skyline to signify Gray dominance of the city. “Take total control of your neighborhood. Push out all Blues. Tell them they’re ... unwelcome,” he said. “Just as Blues ethnically cleanse me out of San Francisco, like, push out all Blues.” The idea, he added, is to do to San Francisco what Musk did to Twitter.

“Elon, in sort of classic Gray fashion ... captures Twitter and then, at one stroke, wipes out millions of Blues’ status by wiping out the Blue Checks,” he said. “Another stroke … [he] renames Twitter as X, showing that he has true control, and it’s his vehicle, and that the old regime isn’t going to be restored.”

Those who try to downplay Balaji’s importance in Silicon Valley often portray him as a “clown.” But Donald Trump taught us that clowns can be dangerous, especially those with proximity to influence and power. In the nearly 11 years since his secession speech at Y Combinator, Balaji’s politics have become even more stridently authoritarian and extremist, yet he remains a celebrated figure in key circles. 

He has one million followers on X-Twitter, where Musk regularly boosts him. Tim Ferriss and Lex Fridman, two influential podcasters, have interviewed him. “Balaji is a friend of mine and is neither a dumbshit nor a clown,” tweeted economics blogger Noah Smith last June, defending Balaji from critics. Alex Lieberman, co-founder of the Morning Brew newsletter, recently listed Balaji at the top of what appears to be his ranked wish list of guests for an upcoming How to Start a Startup podcast (Musk and Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg ranked sixth and fourteenth, respectively). Last week, he headlined Token2049, a sold-out conference in Dubai that bills itself as the “premier crypto event.”

Even more disturbing, however, is Balaji’s tight connection with Tan, the Y Combinator CEO who has publicly aligned himself with the Network State for years. “I legit believe [Y Combinator] is a prototype model for what @balajis talks about when he says the Network State,” wrote Tan in August 2022, shortly before he was named CEO. Over the past two years, as Musk has transformed Twitter into a right-wing information weapon, Tan has used the platform, along with his bully pulpit at Y Combinator, to wage all-out war for political control of San Francisco. This fits with Balaji’s recommendation that, as an alternative to forming new cities, tech zillionaires can use elections to seize existing governments.

Increasingly, Tan has also pursued another key Network State goal: attacking journalists. Balaji portrays the press, especially The New York Times, as the chief enemy of the Network State ideology.  He accuses the venerable paper of upholding something called “Woke Capital.”

“Woke Capital is the ideology of America’s ruling class as explicated by America’s ruling newspaper, The New York Times,” writes Balaji in his book. “It’s capitalism that enables decentralized censorship, cancel culture, and American empire.” Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, whom Balaji characterizes as a “rich white male nepotist,” especially irks him. “What if Sulzberger is more like Keyser Söze?” writes Balaji, comparing Sulzberger to the mysterious criminal mastermind in 1995’s The Usual Suspects. “What if his employees are highly self-interested professional prevaricators? What if they’ve always been like that?”

“So long as you aren’t running a corporation based on hereditary nepotism where the current guy running the show inherits the company from his father’s father’s father’s father, you’re more diverse and democratic than the owners of The New York Times Company. You don’t need to take lectures from them, from anyone in their employ, or really from anyone in their social circle—which includes all establishment journalists.”

The solution, he says, is to create rival media outlets“parallel” forms of journalism controlled by tech plutocrats. Both he and Tan point to Musk’s transformation of Twitter as a perfect example of parallel media: a propaganda machine that smears real journalism as “fake” while aggressively promoting disinformation.

Over the past year, Tan has ramped up his attacks on reporters at The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Standard, and Mission Local. “If you want to understand why we got here, you have to understand three things,” Tan wrote in an anti-media Twitter screed last year. “1/The local political machine and the local media (Chronicle, Mission Local) are complicit in keeping it this way, supporting the worst, most corrupt candidates and repeating their propaganda.”

“Nobody likes this article,” he tweeted at the Standard, owned by billionaire Michael Moritz, after the site published a feature about a progressive leader last year. “Fix your headline,” he commanded in a tweet after it published a story about a Cruise robotaxi hitting a pedestrian in October.

“Mission Local besmirches the city with unbalanced coverage that only emboldens Preston, Peskin, Chan,” he wrote in November, name-checking three of the elected officials upon whom he would later wish a “slow death.”

Amid his drunken tweet scandal, Tan paused such attacks. He hired a public relations consultant, apologized, and ceased sending out caustic tweetstemporarily. Then, on March 29, the Times published a favorable profile of him. Written by former Chronicle columnist Heather Knight, it characterized him as a “middle-of-the-road” Democrat agitating for “common sense” ideas. Tan came across as contrite and humble, a civic-minded centimillionaire who let his passion for political change get the best of him. “Mr. Tan has tried to learn from his online messor says he has,” wrote Knight. “In person, he speaks kindly and calmly and smiles often, frequently bowing to people while making a prayer gesture with his hands.” 

Progressives groaned at what they saw as a conspicuous whitewashing of Tan’s behavior. Tan proudly shared the piece on social media. He has nevertheless returned to his old antics. “SF legacy media is dishonest and lies to you,” he wrote to his 428,000 followers on April 1.

What’s stunning, however, is the degree to which coverage of Tan has been quite evenhanded and fair, if not positive. The press has unquestioningly accepted the framing that he represents moderate or “common sense” politics. Not one local story has mentioned his long affiliation with Balaji or the Network State cult that is currently trying to create tech-controlled cities around the globe, and which maintains a fascination with an alt-right, neofascist movement known as the “Dark Enlightenment.” (In 2021, Cade Metz of the Times wrote that Balaji had suggested targeting journalists who mention these connections. “If things get hot, it may be interesting to sic the Dark Enlightenment audience on a single vulnerable hostile reporter to dox them and turn them inside out with hostile reporting sent to *their* advertisers/friends/contacts,” wrote Balaji in an email viewed by the Times.) In a twisted way, these omissions almost lend credence to claims that mainstream press outlets don’t tell us what’s really going on.

In the aftermath of Tan’s death threat tweets, both the Chronicle and the Standard hesitated for at least a day before publishing full stories. For a moment, it seemed unclear whether they would cover it at all. Yet despite the local media’s generally fair approach and the puffy Times glow-up, Tan continues to rage against the press. Nothing less than absolute control and fealty seems acceptable to the Network State types.

“Do not hire PR,” tweeted Balaji on April 4, days after Tan’s P.R.-wrangled Times profile. “They want to ‘train’ you to talk to journos. But journos hate you! So this is an obsolete model. Instead, just hire influencers. Build your own channel. And go direct.”

Tan boosted the message to his feed.

This article has been updated.