A Class Divided
Elon Musk vs. the PMC
One of my early Substack posts was about the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “cultural capital.” Briefly, cultural capital is the knowledge one accumulates over time that allows you to effortlessly inhabit a particular social space, whether it’s a fluency in memes and internet slang within a subreddit community, or a working familiarity with firearms among working class rural American men. Bourdieu understood one’s class position to be derived from a combination of one’s economic capital and the volume and composition of one’s cultural capital (the kind that affords you access to elite environments is, obviously, worth more). You can be flush with money and poor in cultural capital — think of the nouveau riche — and still belong to a society’s dominant class. Or you can be relatively poor in economic capital and rich in cultural capital — think of the starving artist or the adjunct professor — and also belong to the dominant class, though admittedly in a subordinated position within it.
Of course, most people within that class, which I’ll shorthand as “the elite,” are, relative to the non-elite, well-endowed in both economic and cultural capital. But the ratio between the two varies from one member of the elite to the next, and it is this variation that shapes our politics, by driving competition between two rival strata of the elite.
This dynamic has become particularly apparent in recent weeks, as a result of Elon Musk’s brazen takeover of Twitter.
Within the elite, there is a constant, simmering tension between those who are relatively more prosperous in cultural capital and those whose capital is principally economic. This tension comes first and foremost from the former. The intelligentsia, whose class power is derived principally from its cultural rather than from its material wealth, is constantly vying for political power with the “merely” rich. Economic wealth, the intelligentsia insists, should not buy political influence in a democratic society. Political power should instead accrue to those with cultural capital — prestigious educational credentials, a command of the wonky details of public policy, and a generally civilized set of tastes and manners — which is to say, themselves. This bias inclines the intelligentsia toward a certain mode of progressive politics, one that sees governance and social engineering as its birthright. Typically this is expressed in a preference for activist government. Taken to the radical extreme, it accounts for the intellectual class’ romanticization of social revolution, which represents the ultimate monopolization of political power by this elite faction.
On the other side, you have a taken-for-granted sense of entitlement to social and political power among those who are accustomed to being deferred to in just about everything in life. In the estimation of the rich, those who have accumulated great wealth have no need for fancy college degrees, for ostentatious displays of one’s technical mastery of policy, or for the mannerisms of the culturally refined. The achievement of economic success speaks for itself: it proves one’s worldly wisdom in a way no amount of book knowledge can. This faction of the elite bristles at the pretenses of the middle and upper middle class intelligentsia, with their cultural snobbery and moral self-certainty. That defensive posture draws the economically rich to a more conservative and reactionary set of politics: one that is shaped in large measure by their rejection of the intellectual class’ presumption of its divine right to political leadership, and a loathing of the activist governance that follows from it.
Politics is a contest for power between these two factions of the elite: broadly speaking, between those who control the means of production — that is to say, the ownership class — and the professional managerial class (to which I belong). Traditionally, the ownership class has embraced a mode of conservative politics that aspires to strip the state of its powers and shift political decision making to the free market, where their own power is uncontested. The PMCs have championed a politics that puts tight regulations on the market and empowers the administrative state, where their control is hegemonic. Both aims are plainly self-serving, but each class faction earnestly believes itself to be advocating for the well-being of the society as a whole, as such is the form that ideology takes in a normatively democratic society.
Outside of this elite are regular middle and working-class Americans, who serve as little more than extras on the set: as moral symbols, bargaining chips and foot soldiers in this intra-elite contest for power. Politics relates to them only through happenstance, as the incidental real world outcomes of this or that victory or defeat by one faction or the other. To be sure, political organizing does emerge from time to time out of the working class, most importantly through labor unions. But it’s only a matter of time before they, too, are wholly absorbed into the intra-elite struggle, generally grafted onto the political apparatus of the intelligentsia (the non-profit advocacy sector, the Democratic Party, etc.). This co-opting tendency is inevitable, and requires nothing as crude as bribery or favor-trading. It happens organically, as a function of the Iron Law of Oligarchy.
On some visceral level, I suspect most people are aware of this, which is why, for decades prior to our current moment of political hyper-polarization, voter turnout waned from each election to the next, and Decline To State became the fastest growing partisan affiliation in the country.
The kerfuffle over Musk’s takeover of Twitter has thrown this dynamic into almost comedically sharp relief. It’s hard to think of an obsession among the elite that could possibly matter less to regular people than who makes the rules on Twitter. That’s not to say that the issue isn’t substantively important: with the federal government inching closer and closer to a policy of direct state censorship, the debate over free speech on social media platforms has potentially existential implications for the future of American democracy. But in terms of its direct impact on the lives of most Americans, the debate ranks close to non-existent. It is, however, a foundational matter for those most directly engaged in the rough-and-tumble of the intra-elite struggle for power. For us, it’s the Battle of Bull Run.
On one side of the fight you have a clique of billionaires, beginning with Musk himself, but also including other members of the PayPal mafia, such as Peter Thiel and David Sacks, and assorted Silicon Valley tycoons like Marc Andreesen and Twitter’s own Jack Dorsey. On the other you have the more or less closed ranks of the PMC, behind whom stands another set of billionaires and their philanthropic institutions: the Open Society Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Knight Foundation and their myriad grantees in the rapidly expanding “disinformation space” of the non-profit industrial complex. (It’s no coincidence that these PMC-aligned billionaires — with the notable exception of George Soros — so often come from inherited wealth. Not only is the self-serving equation of economic success with worldly wisdom closed off to those who did nothing personally to achieve it, but these are the members of the elite who were, from birth, most steeped in the elite cultural training that accompanies a childhood of privilege. They are thus the tranche of the hyper-rich that comes closest to a 1:1 ratio of economic and cultural capital. There is an easy elective affinity between their worldview and that of the PMC.)
Twitter has, of course, become something of a permanent front line of the culture wars. Both rival factions of the elite have a direct political stake in who serves as its umpire. But beyond that, it has also become symbolic as a great battle in an ongoing war for national political hegemony.
Since Biden defeated Trump for the presidency, the PMC has been ascendant. Their near-total domination over the culture industries, including higher education, tech and the mass media, has endowed them with outsized political influence over any Democratic administration. Moderate Joe Biden’s triumph over a field of woke candidates in 2020, heralded by some as the beginning of the end for the woke left, was in fact only a temporary setback. The PMC needed only to regroup and then co-opt the Biden White House, which has since put that class’ ideology, anxieties and interests at the top of its agenda.
The PMC has been eager to consolidate that cultural hegemony by silencing dissent, whether through moral shaming, professional retaliation and ostracism, or, recently, straight up censorship. Bending Twitter and other social media platforms to its will has been by far its greatest conquest in that effort. Enacting a new set of speech codes online with an army of professional monitors is the means by which the PMC might entrench its outsized but otherwise fleeting cultural power. It’s the intelligentsia’s road from the Reign of Terror to the Thermidorian Reaction.
But now, the owner class, in the person of Elon Musk, threatens to undo all of that work through the brute force of money. It’s the rawest repudiation of the authority of the PMC’s cultural power: their entire painstakingly constructed Orwellian edifice of digital panopticism, language policing, and moral gaslighting, felled by a single financial transaction. At the moment of its long-awaited domination of the elite class, the intelligentsia threatens to be shunted once again into its familiar position of subordination to economic capital.
Thus, the hysterical demonization of Musk by a chorus of PMC mouthpieces, and the feverish hyperbole over the danger he represents. As a rule of thumb, whenever anyone in politics invokes a “danger” to society, assume that the danger is to their own political standing. Such is the case here, as it usually is. Musk and his billionaire friends pose no threat to “democracy”; through their avowed and demonstrated commitment to free speech, at this moment, they threaten only to salvage it. They do, however, pose a grave risk to the political aspirations of the PMC and the billionaires underwriting them. And that’s what all the panic is about. It’s politics as usual: all sound and fury, signifying nothing.