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Elon Musk’s offer of Freedom through benevolent Oligarchy
Elon Musk had initially offered to purchase Twitter in April for $43 Billion. Then Twitter invited Musk to join the board but reneged with obstructionism. For instance what is colloquially known as a “poison pill,” that allows existing shareholders to buy more shares at a discounted price to raise the costs and dilute the stake of any shareholder who seeks to acquire the company. However, on April 25, Twitter's board of directors “unanimously accepted Musk's buyout offer of $44 billion, which makes him the company's sole owner. As of May 2022, the acquisition is pending approval from regulators and shareholders, and could be the largest acquisition ever to take a company private.
There is jubilation from conservatives and populists about Elon Musk’s new free speech Twitter, which may be naïve. So far Twitter has unshackled some prominent conservative accounts and Twitter has seen a spike in new conservative accounts. However, prior to the deal being solidified, there were mass suspensions on Twitter. The responses to Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter from the woke left and corporate gatekeeping press have been utterly unhinged. Many high-profile progressives such as Alyssa Milano and Debra Messing have threatened to leave Twitter, much like how many liberals threatened to leave the country when Trump was elected. Also many Twitter employees have threatened to quit, Twitter even had to go into an internal lockdown to prevent woke employees from sabotaging the takeover, and Twitter’s top lawyer, Vijaya Gadde, who was a major force for censorship, was seen weeping at a meeting. However, among the general public, 43% vs. 30% approve of the acquisition.
Glenn Greenwald tweeted that “US liberals have not been this distraught, panicked or unhinged since Election Night, 2016. There is literally nothing more threatening to them than the possible loss of their power to silence, censor and de-platform their adversaries from the most influential platforms.” It just says a lot that so many of the most odious people in America are livid about Musk’s “takeover.” For instance CNN’s Brian Stelter stated that “If you get invited to something where there are no rules, where there is total freedom for everybody, do you actually want to go to that party or are you going to decide to stay home?” The View's Sunny Hostin said that "So when Elon Musk says, 'wow, this is about free speech,' seems to me that it’s about free speech of straight white men." Shaun King who deleted and then reinstated his account, like a passive aggressive drama queen, tweeted “At its root, @ElonMusk wanting to purchase Twitter is not about left vs right. It’s about white power. The man was raised in Apartheid by a white nationalist. He’s upset that Twitter won’t allow white nationalists to target/harass people. That’s his definition of free speech.” Mike Rothschild, who monitors rightwing politics, tweeted that, You don't want unfettered, unmoderated, "settle with vigorous debate" free speech online. Trust me. And if you think you do, spend an hour on Telegram, 8kun, or Gab. You'll change your mind about the need for moderation on social media.” Probably as reactions to Musk’s acquisition, the Biden Administration has launched a new factchecking agency, under the Department of Homeland Security, dubbed by many as the Ministry of Truth, and the Justice Department has launched a regulatory investigation into Tesla.
In an op-ed for Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post, former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao, wrote that “Musk calls himself a “free-speech absolutist,” but like many “free speech” advocates, he willfully ignores that private companies are free to establish some limits on their platforms,” and that “The people harmed will disproportionately be those who have been harmed for centuries — women and members of marginalized racial and ethnic groups. The people who benefit from unrestricted amplification of their views will also be the same people who have benefited from that privilege for centuries.” Glen Greenwald pointed out the gaslighting of the censors in that “Of all the twisted beliefs to support censorship, the worst is the idea that censorship is a tool used to protect the marginalized from the powerful. The opposite is and always has been true: censorship is a tool used by the powerful to silence dissidents and the marginalized.”
Musk symbolizes something nefarious to the woke left that other oligarchs such as Bezos and Zuckerberg do not. There is also hypocrisy about the left’s complaints about Musk as a corporate oligarch controlling and corrupting democracy, such as Robert Reich’s statement on how Elon Musk’s vision for the internet is dangerous in that “Musk has enough power and money to quietly give himself this sort of control over Twitter.” It is major gaslighting on Reich’s part to use a faux progressive framework to imply that the opposition cannot align itself with power and then tell the powerless and disenfranchised that change can only come through bottom up grassroots activism.
An example of more blatant gatekeeping was MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski practically saying how dare Musk have power over how people think, that’s our job. Power can only be checked by power and those outraged about billionaire control, in regards to Musk, are usually quick to defend tech monopolies and often work for billionaire run propaganda outlets. Not to mention the lack of outrage from the left about Wall Street firm Vanguard being Twitter’s largest shareholder. However, there are limits to pointing out hypocrisy, as it assumes that these are people you can have an honest, open debate with, and are operating under the same value system. Hypocrisy should not be moralized but rather a chance to let one’s adversary expose their true nature and attempt at consolidating power.
Barrack Obama recently stated that democracy needs aggressive content moderation to survive, and Neocon Never Trumper, Max Boot made a similar point that “I am frightened by the impact on society and politics if Elon Musk acquires Twitter. He seems to believe that on social media anything goes. For democracy to survive, we need more content moderation, not less.” The basic bitch populist response, to this claim that free speech threatens democracy, is that it is Orwellian doublespeak. However, this also vindicates Noam Chomsky’s concept of Manufactured Consent, as well as neo-reactionary theories that post-WWII liberal democracy, by design, requires top down institutional control to be maintained.
Elon Musk stated that “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” Musk is brilliant at marketing and has previously pandered to “based” sentiment with tweeting memes such as “the current thing,” and an image of Bill Gates next to the pregnant man emoji. Musk could be selling free speech and anti-gatekeeping as a product and branding himself towards people who hate cancel culture. As a businessman, he is selling the new platform as a better product with simple changes such as adding an edit feature, as Twitter has been poorly managed from a purely business standpoint. At a certain point, social media becomes less profitable if half of the population are banned. However, Musk has more than enough wealth, so I don’t think his main motive is profits.
As far as speculating Musk’s motives, he probably genuinely does want more free speech, even if he might also have some cynical motives for personal gain down the road. He has accomplished everything and wants a legacy to make his mark on history, and perhaps he has long-term political aspirations. Also social capital is as important as wealth. While Musk may be unpopular among the establishment, he is fairly popular among the public, with a net approval rating of +16 in contrast with -4% for Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal, -6% for Jack Dorsey, and -12% for Jeff Bezos. Perhaps Musk enjoys the trolling, as he has the personality type of the genius, one who is high IQ but low on agreeableness, moderately anti-social, or on the spectrum, and is surrounded by insufferable midwit striver types who take themselves way too seriously.
There is validity to Marxist critiques of capitalism, as eroding democracy and gutting intuitions via privatization, and then remaking institutions to serve oligarchic interests. Clearly we are in late-stage capitalism and are seeing a shift away from liberal democracy. Speech discourse has been so privatized and monopolized by Big Tech, that it is no longer protected by the 1st Amendment. Democratic institutions have failed to protect the right to free speech, as politicians are either too corrupt or inept. Politics has become a consumer choice and freedom is sold as a product rather than a right granted by the state. Musk is symbolic as a benevolent oligarch, a based billionaire fighting the woke billionaires, or the least bad faction of the oligarchy.
With all the hype about Neo-Feudalism from populists, there is a lack of historical understanding about feudalism. If we do get neo-feudalism, it won’t be a 1984 dystopian technocracy but rather closer to historical feudalism, or rather like a third world nation, where billionaires buy citizens’ votes with cash or offers of freedom. The 1984, Great Reset, techno-dystopia, would need to be maintained by immense wealth, and mass consensus and organization among both the economic and cognitive elites, but the future of America will be poorer and more fragmented. Biden may have unintentionally ended globalization with the sanctions on Russia. Even the US’s world reserve currency status is in peril, which allowed the Fed to print unlimited money, to buy votes but also to prop up the corporate/government managerial complex. Neoliberalism replaced earlier stages of capitalism, such as Fordism, but it is too soon to tell what will replace neoliberalism.
There are valid criticisms of Musk from a populist standpoint, such as Musk benefiting from corporate welfare, being very anti-union, and has called out Trump for being too tough on h-1b visas. While Musk is an oligarch who deserves healthy scrutiny, the issue is not about populism but rather about inter-elite conflict. Historically revolutions and civil wars happened or society sees transformational and systemic changes, due to inter-elite conflicts rather than populist uprisings. Cleary Musk has a good grasp on James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution. The question is whether Musk can effectively disrupt the existing entrenched corporate managerial complex to the point that the current elites hold on power is in peril.
Musk is not easy to pigeonhole politicly and like most billionaires has donated to both Democrats and Republicans. Not only has he been outspoken against cancel culture, as the world’s richest man, he has enough f-you money to be able to make controversial statements that corporate CEOs usually avoid, to not risk offending shareholders and advertisers. As for Musk’s political positions, he has supported a UBI because “in the future, physical work will be a choice,” and supports “targeting an inclusive tax rate of 40%, prefers consumption taxes to income taxes, and supports the estate tax, as the "probability of progeny being equally excellent at capital allocation is not high."
Musk’s more based or controversial standpoints include woke outrage over him reading the philosopher Ernst Junger, Musk basically endorsing smart socialism when he tweeted “I am actually a socialist. Just not the kind that shifts resources from most productive to least productive, pretending to do good, while actually causing harm. True socialism seeks greatest good for all,” and Quasi eugenic comments about fertility when speaking to Ashlee Vance for his 2015 biography, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, that “wealth, education, and being secular are all indicative of a low birth rate,” but that “if each successive generation of smart people has fewer kids, that’s probably bad.” He clarified that he doesn’t want other people to stop having kids; he simply wants “smart” people to have more.” Musk has also been critical of the gerontocracy’s impact on innovation in that “Old people don’t change their minds, with rare exception, they just die. Without death, there would not be change,” in reference to George Lucas telling him “that the only reason Star Wars got made is because the old studio heads died.” He has also suggested that people over the age of 70 should be banned from holding public office. I have never thought of Musk as overtly political but speculation about his ideology ranges from being a closet right-winger, to a Silicon Valley techno-libertarian, to a Radical Centrist.
Apartheid South Africa, which was a huge cause for the left in the 80s, is being brought up in light of portraying Musk as a villain to Black Lives Matter and the woke cause. The Johannesburg bureau chief for the New York Times, John Eligon, tweeted that “Elon Musk grew up in a South Africa that saw the dangers of unchecked speech: Apartheid govt propaganda fueled violence against Black people. Musk didn't experience that. He grew up in a bubble of white privilege.” The reality is that Musk had many non-White friends growing up, he left South Africa so that he didn’t have to serve in the Apartheid government’s military, and his father, Errol Musk, was a staunchly anti-Apartheid politician, like much of South Africa’s capitalist elite. However, to the woke left, any White person who does not take on a subservient role is a White Supremacist, and Musk certainly doesn’t.
We can speculate whether Musk’s Twitter will be successful in guaranteeing free speech, as all previous strategies to fight censorship have failed. For instance the GOP can only be expected to pass symbolic toothless legislation against tech censorship since GOP politicians receive campaign contributions from big tech. Even Trump’s opposition to tech censorship was purely rhetorical with no serious attempts at legislation. There are also limitations to Alt-Tech, social media sites like Trump’s Truth Social and the dissident right’s Gab, which have become ideological echo chambers, segregated away from the broader town square. Also Trump’s Truth Social is hypocritical on free speech and Musk ridiculed it for bad marketing. Musk’s Twitter might fulfill the role of a broader free speech platform. Besides more free speech, other positive changes include, greater transparency, such as Musk’s proposal to open source Twister’s speech codes and algorisms.
However, there are reasons to have healthy cynicism. For instance, Jack Dorsey was originally a pro-free speech libertarian, and has recently been more critical of tech censorship after stepping down as CEO. However, Dorsey was under a lot of pressure to censor, especially after Charlottesville and January 6th. Some reasons to be skeptical of Musk’s Twitter are his plans for authenticating all humans, which may get rid of annoying bots but will also be used to prevent evading suspensions with alt-accounts. Twitter also plans to limit and suspend users who copy-and-paste text, which is terrible for self-promotion. Musk will also be under pressure from the deep state to censor Russian propaganda, as there has already been a mass banning of allegedly pro-Russia accounts. Musk is clear that Twitter won’t be the wild west. There is some concern that Musk could create the illusion of free speech or that this is all just political theater.
Some on the right were skeptical of Musk’s tweet that “A social media platform’s policies are good if the most extreme 10% on left and right are equally unhappy.” One cynical Twitter account predicted that Musk’s algorithms might promote the kookiest elements of the right, such as QAnon and antivaxxers, while more serious dissident material will remain censored. I expect a lot of MAGA leaders to be reinstated and Musk already plans to reinstate Trump. Perhaps this is part of a plan to improve relations between Silicon Valley and the GOP, with a compromise of cutting back on censorship of mainline MAGA, but not more serious dissidents, in exchange for corporate tax cuts and de-regulation.
Sure it would be great to see Musk enact mass layoffs of woke corporate leadership but dissidents and populists are naïve about the way internal corporate politics works. The idea that one individual like Trump or Musk can change everything is naïve, as an owner, CEO, or politician, is not king and there is an entrenched power apparatus, with mechanisms in place, to prevent one person from being able to disrupt the entire system. It is also idiotic that dissidents are simping for Musk to the point of opposing raising taxes on billionaires, just to protect Musk’s fortune. It shows how desperate and demoralized dissidents are, that they need a billionaire to liberate them.
Regardless, Musk’s motives do not really matter as anything that undermines the current managerial power structure or disrupts the narratives that maintain power is a net positive. Musk, like Trump, is not a political savior, but rather an agent to shake things up. Even though Trump was a mediocre president, he provoked the gatekeeping class to expose themselves as totalitarians. Many of those in power are coming across as paranoid rather than confident, and less effective at maintaining soft power. The reactions, blatant doublespeak, and unhinged propaganda alone, prove that Musk does pose a threat to power.
It is hard to predict how much of an impact Musk’s acquisition of Twitter will have. This could end up being just a symbolic, rather than policy victory, a morale boost to embolden dissidents to speak truth to power, a sense that they are no longer arguing on enemy territory. This is symbolic of not just a backlash against cancel culture but a paradigm shift in looking for alternatives to liberal democracy to protect freedom. It is fine to have a degree of skepticism, as Musk’s Twitter won’t be some free speech free for all, but overall this will be a net positive.