When The Deal Goes Bad
Historically wealthy capitalists like Elon Musk promote themselves as messiahs in order to stave off outrage. What happens when the illusion fades and all that's left is exploitation?
Since it was announced that Twitter would accept tech billionaire Elon Musk’s $44 billion dollar buyout offer, the coverage has been predictably terrible. It’s been instructive, to an extent, as an example of just how insulated and craven our media truly is, not to mention its undeniable penchant for not learning from or even paying attention to recent events or trends, to watch this disaster play out. Articles and op-eds range from the absurd - “What does Musk mean when he says ‘free speech?’” - to the offensively mundane - “How will he make Twitter profitable?”
In both cases, the core of the matter is completely overlooked. The question of what Musk’s potential purchase of one of the world’s main communication hubs and narrative producers isn’t about whether he’s actually dedicated to free speech - he isn’t, it’s coded language that anyone paying attention to the culture wars can easily decipher - or if he can make money off the service - the data alone is priceless when exorcised from the 280 character veneer - but what this represents as this particular moment in history rolls on.
Because Musk is a exorbitantly rich, his projects are intricately tied into the power structure of the state and economy, and because people still can’t seem to wrap their heads around the inherent contradictions of tech ideology, he is treated as if he is the embodiment of the invisible hand of the market. Our narratives and mythologies about how this works, and how it should work, have so inundated our perception of the world and its events that to look at Musk, through this lens anyway, is equivalent to how it must have felt to gaze into the heavens and wonder after the gods.
But, none of what Musk believes or feels, or even what he intends to do with his money, affluence, and power, has been hidden. He is, above all, a capitalist unafraid to game a system that has been tuned and designed to assist his efforts, all while using his resources to acrue more resources and systematically eliminate any and all impediments, including the nation state which helped birth his empire and any regulation or oversight it might produce.
Twitter is merely a tool in all of this. It is where journalists, politicians, and tastemakers go to market their own particular narratives that either explain what is happening or divert attention from the very real material conditions which ensnare us. Bringing back Donald Trump to the website is an issue, but like all things Trump it is a distraction. The very real question is how will Musk use the data he is purchasing and the reality-defining powers of the site to further his agenda.
And, in addition, as the society Musk lords over continues to break down, as inequality worsens, suffering increases, and class conflict grows, will he, like the other robber barons before him, use his wealth and resources, including Twitter.com, as weapons in order to protect himself?
If you’ve been paying attention at all, the answers to those questions are self-evident.
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The inability for media to wrap their heads around Musk’s game is equal parts infuriating and dumbfounding. You would think, for people having grown up watching entertainments and reality TV in the United States of America, home of the huckster and snake-oil salesman, they would have become immune to this particular grift. But Americans are terrible at learning from the past and their love of popular-culture-as-distraction-and-fantasy keeps them drowning in denial.
Musk’s chosen brand is that of technological messiah. It is an archetype straight out of Ayn Rand’s oeuvre and that isn’t by accident. This libertarian fantasy of an iconoclast who struggles against the groaning, decaying order of the day in order to drag humanity into its promised future is, to be frank, a cliche. What it accomplishes is bypassing of our natural inclination to question power and replacing it with a religious faith in something we cannot see or hold or even fully comprehend because it simply does not exist.
The idea that Musk is going to make us a “spacefaring species” is a farce. Preserving “the light of consciousness” is far from his goal. It is the accumulation of resources. Or, to be more specific, the accumulation of resources in the face of species-threatening circumstances.
Climate catastrophe is very real and its consequences will be almost incomprehensible. As our nation states are owned by corporations and the beneficiaries of the free-market, the idea that our governments will do anything to actually combat the problem is ludicrous. To do so would take transformative politics, an epochal shift the likes of which we have only seen with industrialization, the project that caused this problem in the first place. It is truly an apocalypse, which means we are desperate for messiahs.
Musk’s appeal is simple. Even as he is the richest man in the world, he needs more. More money. More resources. And, specifically, more autonomy. He needs the government to subsidize his projects but leave him alone otherwise. He needs mass movements, including democracy and labor uprisings, to cease and disappear entirely. The pitch couldn’t be more obvious. If you want to survive the future, I’m your only hope. Give me what I want.
It’s blackmail of the species, and capitalists have done this time and again. The very story of “progress” is based on a promise by the wealthy and powerful that if they are left alone, if they are just given what they want, then utopia is guaranteed. Any attempt to rein them in or impede those projects is tantamount to supernatural evil attempting to dismantle the Kingdom of Heaven and interrupt God’s plans.
YOU will not make it to Mars. It’s doubtful Elon Musk will either. If he manages to get there, it’ll be in order to create a feudal state where he reins as the Technoking he already fashions himself as. In public, off-the-cuff, he’s already admitted any normal people making the trek would become indentured servants.
But that’s not what’s important. Not now, anyway. It’s that the promise of tomorrow hides the realities of today: that Musk and other exorbitantly wealthy capitalists are presiding over historical inequality and are intentionally, and restlessly, increasing that gap with every single second.
Like all religious narratives, there is a distinct possibility the illusion might falter or fade. And, when that happens, there’s always hell to pay.
For more on this topic and the threat of authoritarianism, preorder your copy of Jared Yates Sexton’s forthcoming book The Midnight Kingdom: A History of Power, Paranoia, and the Coming Crisis from Dutton/Penguin-Random House, due out January 2023.
It’s no coincidence that Elon Musk has grown more and more fond of anti-liberals and their antagonism within the culture wars. The project he is carrying out, namely the concentration of capital, puts him squarely in alliance with the Far Right, which is gaining in power, influence, and authority.
Musk’s position as a modern robber baron demands that we look back in time to how industrialization suffered tremors with the economic collapse of the 1920’s. Previously, the rise of railroads, factories, skyscrapers, the shift to fossil fuel, and the trends that created our modern world of exploitation, concentrated immense capital in the hands of a select few. This was done by a process of redistribution in which the federal government took tax money, funneled it to corporations and individuals, and created a new class of elites. Over time, they used that capital to buy off the government and more or less control both politics and the economy.
As has been the case since the emergence of capitalism, this song and dance always leads to economic crises as the contradictions of the system overheat the system and lead to disaster. The economic conditions were so rigged by the 1920’s that collapse was all but ensured. When the check came due, the realities of the system were all but obvious for everyone to see.
Predictably, the self-destruction of capitalism produced a plethora of possible solutions. In the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt used unparalleled powers to deliver a therapeutic re-balancing that solved the contradictions, reinvested wealth into the middle and working class, and staved off fascistic risings within the nation. In Europe, Fascists and Nazis supplied answers by creating new authoritarian states predicated on performative masculinity, violence, racism, and a re-sanctification of the procedures of production.
In all cases, the wealthy elite who had gained world-beating power in the age of industrialization faced a challenge. The narratives and worldviews they had depended on, including myths of meritocracy and the just order of society, collapsed with the markets, leaving them vulnerable to opposition in the form of popular revolt, organized labor, and political reformation. In America, they funded paramilitaries that attacked workers and leftists. To oppose FDR, they formed organizations to undermine his agenda and even plotted a possible fascist coup. Across the ocean, they funded the Fascists and Nazis, employing them to break socialist uprisings and protect their property and wealth.
As conditions worsen in modern times, these new robber barons will follow the same patterns. They’ll align with the Far Right in the face of populist uprisings and leftist challenges. They’ll find common ground in the racist, sexist, and classist ideas that will form new nationalist and disturbing faiths that seek to reinvigorate the illusions and mythologies that make it possible for men like Elon Musk to perform as technokings and messiahs.
In the early 20th century, it was done with organization, funding, and propaganda. Many of the major newspapers, magazines, and even politicians, acting with the explicit guidance of these moguls, attacked FDR and the Left as dangerous and enemies of the people. They used conspiracy theories to legitimize their positions. The media they controlled amplified these ideas and were used to take Fascist and Nazi leaders, dictators-in-waiting, and turn them into saviors of the system. This was done through propaganda and aggrandizement, the very nature of mythmaking.
Twitter is one of the most powerful machines in the world. The algorithms and systems that operate under the surface not only reveal our innermost thoughts and fears, but also provide conduits for shaping how news stories are disseminated, crafted, and how they move through the larger world. Authoritarians and authoritarian states understand this. Tech companies already help censor the world and create realities to these oppressors’ liking.
Musk isn’t just buying a website. It isn’t about “free speech.” It’s not even about making a profit from the site. There’s plenty of money to be made through this manipulation and mastery. The profit of the future, but also the protection of the wealth accrued up to this point.
We are reaching a crossroads and history is simply repeating itself.