Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
There Aren't Good Billionaires
It has to be (again) said
Elon Musk is reimagining or destroying Twitter, depending on your view. I am more sympathetic to the latter perspective, but can’t bring myself to believe the social media giant will stop functioning next week or become, within a short while, another MySpace, a digital graveyard for what we used to be. Musk strikes me as someone we all encounter at some point in our lives: the guy who is in way too deep. Musk tried to back out of his ill-conceived deal to buy Twitter, found out he couldn’t, and ended up paying a ludicrous sum for a famous social media company that is still used by less than 30 percent of Americans. There is no way Musk can recoup value here, not after paying $44 billion. It makes sense he is desperate, now hustling up those Twitter blue subscriptions that are bound, from a revenue-generating standpoint, to fail. Some will pay, but many won’t, and the cash in his pocket will be negligible. Corporate advertisers, terrified of controversy or any perception of instability, are fleeing Twitter, and why should they bother coming back? The internet is infinite and digital advertising is overrated anyway, producing diminishing gains in a world where young people learn to tune most of it out. The future is subscriptions and paywalls, but not for Twitter. Donald Trump’s return won’t save Musk from losing enormous amounts of money.
Liberals revile Musk and it’s obvious why: he’s morphed from bland Obama Democrat to contrarian troll, adopting right-coded stances to piss people off. He tweets out conspiracy theories and punches reflexively at the left. Musk is a perfect arch-villain, just right for those who lack any class analysis. And there may be no class of people more devoid of it—or at least unwilling to confront what it is in their midst—than the affluent left-liberals. In this simpler moral universe, Musk is bad and other billionaires are good or at least forgettable. The idea is that some walking the Earth with the wealth of nation-states are not worth the worry. Musk’s content moderation strategies are dubious and his jokes are stupid; he is now a threat to civilization.
Bill Gates was a ruthless monopolist, the embodiment of late capitalist excess. Now he reinvents himself as a healthcare and education hero, with a pliant press willing to do, for the most part, his public relations work. (The Jeffrey Epstein stuff, uncomfortably for him, keeps popping up.) Until a report from a website that covers the cryptocurrency industry spurred the spectacular immolation of Sam Bankman-Fried, left-leaning media outlets lionized the 30-year-old as another Warren Buffet, failing to ever question the improbable nature of his business. Why did Bankman-Fried get a pass for so long? Laziness on the part of the finance and tech press is probably the easiest of explanations, but another one looms: Bankman-Fried, despite his inherent peculiarity, seemed like one of the good ones. He donated lavishly to Democrats. He declared himself an effective altruist, taking up the cause of donating money “effectively” to all kinds of worthy causes, like pandemic preparedness. Left-liberals had no issue with Bankman-Fried’s billions because it was being deployed in an acceptable manner and his Twitter account, unlike Musk’s, kicked up little controversy. The structural nature of a man suddenly worth billions on paper irked few people beyond genuine leftists and Marxists.
And it’s valuable, at a moment like this, to recall Marx, who was not able to sketch a workable blueprint for utopia but understood remarkably well how capitalism could fail. A progressive billionaire is still a billionaire; if Musk started talking sweetly tomorrow and maybe went through a few DEI seminars, the dynamic of American society would not suddenly shift. The world remains divided between a working class and an ownership class. The working class trades its labor to the ownership class in exchange for a wage and that wage, in the Marxist conception, is insufficient compared to the positive value labor creates. The worker creates the value of the companies whose stock drives the enormous wealth of Musk and his ilk. The workers at those companies will never be properly compensated under capitalism, relative to the ownership class. Warren Buffett has pledged to give away 99 percent of his wealth, but it’s worth asking why he was allowed to accumulate so much capital in the first place. Buffett has mastered public relations in a way the reckless Musk never will. He will never been viewed, therefore, as part of the problem. That’s the genius of image-making.
What now for Musk? For Twitter? Regardless, the societal implications are not nearly as grave as they are being portrayed. Twitter’s crisis cannot compare to climate change, the war in Ukraine, or grinding poverty. It does not even mean much against the crises facing media: an ongoing funding collapse that has eroded most local newspapers and left many millions of people without reliable news. If Twitter gives way, life will not fundamentally change. Journalists can go back to emails, blogs (Substack), and message boards. The news obsessive can find breaking morsels elsewhere. Capitalism, meanwhile, will churn on.