Elon Musk’s Twist On Tech Libertarianism Is Blowing Up On TwitterNovember 23, 2022
Washington, you might have heard, is “increasingly freaked out” by Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter.
Media watchdogs worry that his free speech maximalism will lead to a glut of “misinformation.” Safety-minded bureaucrats worry that the platform might simply break, endangering a crucial tool for emergency communications. Liberals worry about banished foes like former President Donald Trump, Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene and psychologist-turned-Daily-Wire-personality Jordan Peterson flooding back to the platform and causing mayhem, making Musk the equivalent of the EPA flunky who shuts down the containment unit in Ghostbusters.
It’s still too early to determine how much, if any, of this might come true. But the cheering of Musk’s markedly different approach to social media governance by a loose constellation of his superfans, sympathetic tech-world billionaires and disgruntled conservatives is a novel enough development in its own right. They are not freaked out. They are convinced that Musk is going to succeed, turning a platform that was modestly profitable at best into a money-printing machine that flips the bird, almost literally, to their ideological opponents.
“Love him or hate him - but Twitter is a million times better and more fun since @elonmusk took over,” wrote the conservative troll account pseudonymously named — yes, unfortunately — “catturd2.” The tech-world favorite, podcaster Lex Fridman, proclaimed that “Twitter is better than Netflix right now.” The venture capitalist and writer Mike Solana noted the national press’ lack of understanding when it comes to Silicon Valley, saying “there are engineers in SF trying to work at twitter right now entirely because they think it might be hard,” something political writers “genuinely can not fathom.” In short: Liberals and even many establishment conservatives simply don’t get the philosophy that Musk is bringing to Twitter, and their dismay at his changes to it is proof enough in itself.
That makes Musk’s ownership of Twitter more than just a billionaire’s vanity project or a tech-world skirmish over content moderation. It’s a window into a distinct mindset, common to Silicon Valley but not exclusively of it, that glorifies individual dynamism over group consensus-building; frontier-like, suck-it-up-buttercup speech norms over crowd-pleasing moderation; and out-of-fashion ideas about the “wisdom of crowds” over the prescriptions of “experts.” The result is a new-school twist on tech libertarianism that merges that world’s cult of the “founder” with modern conservative critiques of liberal institutions. It’s not dissimilar from the business-friendly-with-an-asterisk, culture-warring form of conservatism practiced by Gov. Ron DeSantis in his “Free state of Florida,” but its fans aren’t limited to red states — just check your Twitter feed.
Antonio García Martínez, an author and tech entrepreneur, summed up this mindset and its grievances well in a Twitter thread that declared Musk’s takeover a “revolt by entrepreneurial capital against the professional-managerial class regime that otherwise everywhere dominates (including and especially large tech companies).” In other words: A revolt by billionaires against ... their own employees.
This positions, in Martínez’s grievance-bearing parlance, the “HR regime, the ESG grifters, the Skittles-hair people with mouse-clicking jobs who think themselves bold social crusaders rather than a parasitic weight around any organization’s neck,” against another Twitter gadfly’s hypothetical “100 passionate libertarian engineers” with equity in the company, capable of turning it around overnight by the sweat of their brow and sheer self-interest — and who, implicitly, believe they’re capable of graduating from “employee” to Musk-like moguldom overnight through hard work and a lucky break.
Those engineers, along with right-leaning figures in the tech world like Musk and his close friend David Sacks, a venture capitalist and adviser on the Twitter project, share a classically libertarian passion for free speech and free markets. Where that tried-and-true, bottom-right-of-the-political-compass mindset finds its modern twist is in the particular conflict that Martínez describes: Prime movers like Musk now struggle not just against the greedy, parasitic welfare bureaucrats of Ayn Rand’s imagination, but a cultural regime that seeks to cement its dominance through corporate governance (not to mention academia and the media).
A dynamic “builder,” after all, is nothing without a foil to struggle against — and all things considered, post-Reagan America is still pretty damn friendly to capital. The story of Silicon Valley since the 1980s is one of unfettered freedom and “permissionless innovation,” with a few notable exceptions. That level of comfort could be what leads a self-described “free speech absolutist” like Musk to muse about his support for DeSantis, a man who used the power of the state to punish one of its major employers for … speaking out against legislation it didn’t like. The libertarians and culture warriors now have the same target in “woke capital.”
The libertarian tech world offers a few theories for woke capital’s rise. One particularly popular characterization of their opponents is, as Martínez put it, the “professional-managerial class,” or “PMC,” a concept borrowed from the WWII-era political philosopher James Burnham. Although their understanding of it is slightly garbled from Burnham’s actual writings, it’s become so widespread that it’s worth considering on its own: The “PMC” are the college-educated middle managers who dominate the ranks of bloated corporations and impose their cultural preferences on said corporations despite not actually making anything.
This critique, it should be noted, is not limited to the right. But on the libertarian right there is no sin as great as “not actually making anything,” which makes the “HR regime” and its allies an especially potent boogeyman. Martínez’s use of the word “regime” to describe them is, intentionally or not, telling: Ohio Sen.-elect J.D. Vance used the term incessantly during his campaign as a sweeping characterization of the PMC-dominated institutions in business, government and media, drawing on his intellectual influence Curtis Yarvin, the monarchist blogger and software engineer.
One might read the word “monarchist” and think we’ve traveled a great distance afield from libertarianism within the span of a single paragraph, but the worlds collide more often than one might think. The writer John Ganz recently compared the philosophy shared by Yarvin and GOP mega-donor Peter Thiel to the apartheid-era South African concept of “baasskap,” in which “highly-competent, technical managers with a crystalline vision, the engineers,” rule without dissent or democracy over a subservient population.
It’s a mistake to outright equate, as some liberals have, Musk’s woolly, unpredictable libertarianism with Thiel’s hardest-of-hard-right ideology. The former might have made a favorite game, if not now a large part of his business empire, out of “owning the libs,” but he’s expressed nothing like Thiel’s hands-on obsession with shaping American political life (unless you count tangling with the National Labor Relations Board). But the two share a fundamental commitment to a sort of aggrieved, hyperindividualistic view of their rightful place in the world, namely at the top: To borrow a slogan from another era of industrial hero-worship, “Silicon Valley makes, the world takes.”
It all sounds, again, very Randian. Ayn Rand’s hardcore free-market dogmatism is decidedly out of fashion among the newest and most energized parts of the post-Trump right. But it wasn’t so long ago that it animated the backlash to Barack Obama’s presidency, the Ron Paul movement and even the cult of Bitcoin. Modern “builder”-ist libertarianism jettisons Rand’s allergy to the state but keeps her glorification of the architect and the railroad builder — now, the coder — in a world of liberal scolds, censors and regulators.
This is what makes Musk’s ownership of Twitter such a galvanizing event for his supporters. Pre-Musk Twitter was a corporation like any other corporation, with a professional culture and goals driven by its board of directors and the desires of the company’s advertisers. Musk purchased the company and in essence declared “Le conseil, c’est moi,” dissolving that board and taking personalized rule over the company to effectively turn it back into a startup.
If you don’t share Musk and his fans’ philosophy, and you thought Twitter was an imperfect but important “digital public square” as it was, that’s cause enough for “freaking out.” But if you believe in the power of Musk’s “hardcore” few, it’s an unprecedented opportunity to show the world the power that’s been repressed by a sclerotic liberal establishment — a dynamic that’s defining this era of politics just as much as this wild moment in the business world.