Letting the Beast Out
More on Musk, Trump, Thiel, and Class Struggle
In the first book of his Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli asks who is more likely to cause disorder and threaten the liberty of a republic: the people, who have little, or the “grandi”—the great—, who have much? One might expect the cause of public disorder to derive from the popular masses’ desire to improve their lot and gain what they don’t have, but Machiavelli thinks the opposite is the case: the wealthy grandi not only desire to keep what they have, but have an insatiable appetite to accumulate more wealth and honors and to dominate the people. (For their part, the people only wish not to be oppressed by the few.) “Very great tumults…are more often caused by him who possesses, because the fear of losing in him generates the same wishes that are in those who desire to acquire; for it does not appear to men that they possess securely what a man has unless he acquires something new.” The great, with their resources, also have much more ability to effectuate their projects: “There is this besides: that since they possess much, they are able to make an alteration with greater power and greater motion.”
It’s worth interpreting all the noises made in recent days by the billionaire class in the light of Machiavelli’s political insights: Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, Marc Andreesen’s whining about his “powerlessness,” Peter Thiel’s sub rosa efforts to manipulate political and cultural power, and Jeff Bezos sudden friendly curiosity—in a since-deleted tweet—toward those schemes. (It seems hardly coincidental that all this flexing of oligarchic power coincides with the recent burgeoning efforts to unionize Amazon and Starbucks under an unusually assertive NLRB under Biden.)
Now Musk has announced that he wants to rescind Trump’s Twitter ban, which came about because of Trump quite literally fomenting tumult. (John P. McCormick in his book Machiavellian Democracy reminds us that, according to Machiavelli, “princely and senatorial elites – because of their inherent appetite for oppression, their over-all disrespect for laws, and their general inclination toward corruption and collusion, conspiracy and cooptation – are constitutionally incapable, by themselves, of effectively punishing individuals who threaten a republic’s liberty…”)
Musk can hide behind the principle of political neutrality in order to accomplish this, but it’s clear that the continued political existence of Trump has clear benefits for the oligarchy. He is the enemy of their enemies and a useful tool to harass, suborn, and subdue an aroused public. He is, after all, one of their own number: For all of Trump’s “populism,” it’s important to remember he has always been creature of his class—albeit a kind of blustering sergeant, not one of its great captains—Trump’s candidacy relied upon the support of Mercers, Thiels, Adelsons, etc.
In the early 1990s, the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard—a favorite of Thiel’s crony Curtis Yarvin and other techno-fascists—articulated his theory of “right-wing populism:”
The basic right-wing populist insight is that we live in a statist country and a statist world dominated by a ruling elite, consisting of a coalition of Big Government, Big Business, and various influential special interest groups. More specifically, the old America of individual liberty, private property, and minimal government has been replaced by a coalition of politicians and bureaucrats allied with, and even dominated by, powerful corporate and Old Money financial elites (e.g. the Rockefellers, the Trilateralists); and the New Class of technocrats and intellectuals, including Ivy League academics and media elites, who constitute the opinion molding class in society. In short, we are ruled by an updated, twentieth-century coalition of Throne and Altar, except that this Throne is various big business groups, and the Altar is secular, statist intellectuals, although mixed in with the secularists is a judicious infusion of Social Gospel, mainstream Christians. The ruling class in the State has always needed intellectuals to apologize for their rule and to sucker the masses into subservience, i.e., into paying the taxes and going along with State rule. In the old days, in most societies, a form of priestcraft or State Church constituted the opinion-molders who apologized for that rule. Now, in a more secular age, we have technocrats, 'social scientists," and media intellectuals, who apologize for the State system and staff the ranks of its bureaucracy.
Rothbard, believed it was no longer sufficient for libertarians and paleoconservatives to try to infiltrate the ruling institutions and shape them; they would always absorb their energy. Instead, a demagogue a la Joe McCarthy or David Duke was needed to shock and “short-circuit” the system:
And so the proper strategy for the right wing must be what we can call “right-wing populism”: exciting, dynamic, tough, and confrontational, rousing and inspiring not only the exploited masses, but the often-shell-shocked right-wing intellectual cadre as well. And in this era where the intellectual and media elites are all establishment liberal-conservatives, all in a deep sense one variety or another of social democrat, all bitterly hostile to a genuine Right, we need a dynamic, charismatic leader who has the ability to short-circuit the media elites, and to reach and rouse the masses directly. We need a leadership that can reach the masses and cut through the crippling and distorting hermeneutical fog spread by the media elites.
This is the role Trump plays for this class: he shocks and upsets the whole system, frightens and distracts, whips up mobs, and prevents the coalescence of popular power. As John P. McCormick puts it, “Republics are usually ruined because the grandi empower a prince to help them dominate the people when laws and institutions are no longer at least partially sufficient to this end.” Trump is just such a “prince.” And, as the power of organized labor grows and control over social media platforms is contested and sometimes controlled by the middle ranks of the tech-platforms, I suspect more of the grandi will be curious and friendly towards the “prince.”
The Right’s cultural politics should be understood in this light, as well. This is the origin of the constant scorn on the values and lifestyle poured on the “PMC” and young middle class who find themselves either precarious or proletarianized and therefore might see themselves in solidarity with workers. All of the supposed “cultural” differences between these classes are emphasized, endlessly insisted upon, and picked apart. Any public intellectual who can master this basic formula immediately finds great gobs of cash and attention at their disposal. This is because any possible cross-class alliance or even the gradual fusion into a single class is particularly perilous for the oligarchy, largely because college-educated workers have access to cultural and social capital that can increase the efficacy of the workers’ movements.
Trump’s appeal to the “working class” is precisely a form of cultural politics in the same way. He usefully divides “the real workers,” based on the old idealized 20the century image of the working class, from the “underclass” and their allies in the “professional-managerial class,” the key component of Rothbard’s right-wing populist strategy. But in this case what counts as “working class” is often more a case of “blue-collar” aesthetics than actual structural position in economy. As Melinda Cooper has pointed out, Trump’s coalition should be understood more as an alliance between private business big and small, between the modest family firm and great dynasties of wealth—grandi piccoli and grandi grandi—both of whom have a shared interest against restive employees’ pesky lawsuits and labor organization and the regulatory bureaucracy of the state that makes those possible, not to mention journalists who might be sympathetic to the workers or report unfavorably on their business practices.
According to Machiavelli the conflict between the grandi and the people is an unavoidable part of a republic, in fact, is political life itself. But powerful institutions have to be in place to control the insatiable appetites of the great for self-aggrandizement and domination. To quote McCormick again, “A republic will be ruined if the inevitable conflict between the grandi, who above all desire to oppress others, and the people, who above all desire not to be dominated, manifests itself extraordinarily, that is, illegally or extra-institutionally.” Hopefully our “popular tribunes” will do their job and be a check on the designs of the wealthy.