The Emerging Tech-Lash
The Politics of Tech Oligarchy
Yesterday, it was announced that Twitter accepted Elon Musk’s $44 billion takeover offer. A week ago Vanity Fair published a long piece on Peter Thiel’s new pet projects and efforts to cultivate a “new right,” which, as my friend Max Read writes, is essentially a soft relaunch of the alt-right. Early this month, the New York Times reported on a cabal of conservative mega-donors, including Peter Thiel and Rebeka Mercer, paying to install hard right figures in D.C. Last month Jacob Siegel in Tablet profiled one of the prominent figures in that piece, “neo-reactionary” theorist Curtis Yarvin, Thiel’s crony and court philosopher. (The same magazine simultaneously published an essay of Yarvin’s, as well.) Then there was the formation of Compact magazine, whose high-end design strongly suggests a rich beneficiary. It certainly feels like something is up.
What do all these things have in common? Being a little speculative, let me propose these are all examples of the Tech oligarchs attempting to flex political muscle. Twitter is a notoriously bad business and Musk’s project is explicitly political: he says he wants to restore “free speech” to the platform, through the loosening of content moderation policies. Tech oligarchs, like Musk, Thiel, and Marc Andreesen, resent the control of the content moderation on the social media platforms by what they see as overly “woke” members of the professional-managerial class in both the media and in the lower-ranking staffs of the tech companies themselves. Unimpeachable in principle, in practice “free speech” would likely mean a return to the platform of the kind of trolling that dominated the space in 2015-2016, during Trump’s election. There would probably be an increase in harassment of left-leaning journalists and activists and a general “flooding of the zone with shit.”
Figures on the far right, like Tucker Carlson and the Claremont Institute’s chief Ryan Williams were already reveling in the news. The right wing’s use of social media for marshaling McCarthyite demagogic campaigns is already meeting with some success, like for instance with Chris Rufo’s assaults on “Critical Race Theory” and L.G.B.T rights. In the absence of content moderation, the ferocity of such mob activity could step up.
Something like a class-consciousness of the most reactionary section of the tech bourgeoisie now appears to be crystallizing and, with it, a concomitant set of political practices and ideologies. (Musk and Thiel formed PayPal together.) The ideology, stripped of all its mystifying decoration, is actually pretty simple and crude: it says “bosses on top.” This is the unifying thread that runs through Yarvin’s tedious peregrinations from radical libertarianism to monarchism: the authority and power of certain people is the natural order, unquestionable, good. It is, to borrow a term from the history of apartheid, baasskap—boss-ism. “I no longer think that freedom and democracy are compatible,” Thiel once wrote, calling for a kind of “technocratic rejection of politics as such,” to quote the sociologist Dylan Riley. But this vision of “freedom” is not only shared by the bosses and their paid ideologues—there is a “mass” component of the politics as well: this ideal of freedom is shared by a mob that worships the power of the oligarchs and wants its own freedom to consist in the total license to behave online without encountering moral sanction from the pestering wokes or to have personal consequences of any kind. Through the adoption of crackpot racial or IQ notions they can flatter themselves that they are part of the elect, minor shareholders in the oligarch’s baasskap.
An outline of the institutional shape of this politics is coming in to view as well: there’s rich donor oligarchy on top, in the middle there’s the think tanks, magazines, and podcasts that serve as kind of currency exchanges where the coin of mob grievance is turned into respectable notes, and the concerns of elite politics are translated into terms the mob can understand and use, and then there’s the public platforms where little armies of trolls are mustered for whatever task is required by their political masters. In short, it’s a model of the kind of corporate society they wish to secure and reproduce on a larger scale: big bosses, middle-management, workers, all happily coordinated and cooperating. No unions, no pesky social movements, no restive professional managerial-classes with their moral pretensions, no federal bureaucracy meddling and gumming up the works with regulations. The “cancellers” will themselves be cancelled: subjected to harassment and intimidation by the mob if they get out of line. There will be no epistemic hierarchy: just “freedom,” an informational anarchy that translates into the impossibility of the exchange of real content and any rational deliberation. Just memes, nonsense, idiotic enthusiasms and fads, etc.
I don’t think all or any of this is necessarily going come to pass, but I do think it’s one possible shape of the future foreshadowed in present trends. And I think it’s a fair description of the one desired by this group of oligarchs if they don’t encounter any obstacles to their power.