Most discussions of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter have focused on its political implications. In many accounts, Musk is engaged in a war against “the cathedral”—that is, against the dominance of professionals who have sought to make the internet more restrictive. Musk has now supposedly poked the first hole in the digital Berlin Wall erected over the past half decade.
Yet there is another aspect of the Musk takeover that has little to do with free speech or even ideology—although it has a great deal to do with the class interests of Big Tech censors. As a recession looms, Silicon Valley is shedding the non-essential workers it acquired when unlimited venture funding made turning a profit an afterthought. Musk happens to have taken the helm at Twitter just as this reality is asserting itself. In this sense, the revolt against his leadership is the last stand of a cohort of activist hangers-on who are about to find themselves unemployed.
Musk paid $44 billion to acquire Twitter, and all indications are that the platform isn’t worth anything close to that. Once he got access to the company’s finances, the Tesla boss realized it was losing millions of dollars every day, and that many of its employees weren’t doing much work at all. So he proceeded to do what most executives would do in this situation: He laid off some of his workers.
The abrupt firing of thousands of employees solicited a new wave of outrage from Musk’s haters. But even if you remove him from the equation, Twitter couldn’t have gone much longer without massive layoffs. The same thing is happening across Silicon Valley. Last week, the online-payments company Stripe announced it would cut 14 percent of its workforce, as did the rideshare giant Lyft; Facebook parent company Meta looks poised to do the same. Like Wile E. Coyote, tech companies ran off the cliff long ago; only now is economic gravity starting to assert itself.
Many “unicorn” tech startups began with a few engineers and a product they wanted to sell, but over the past decade-plus, they have accrued a bloated bureaucracy of “equity”-minded h.r. activists, ESG-savvy consultants, affinity-group mavens, climate-change specialists, and many other email-caste hangers-on. Now that times are turning bad, tech companies can no longer afford to sustain a massive “court” of professional-class nobility, paying sinecures to sons and daughters of the good and the great who don’t know how to code or crunch numbers, but know how to write emails, hold useless meetings, and talk about diversity and inclusion.
Here, one is reminded of a social dynamic that took hold in the leadup to the French Revolution. In the latter half of the 18th century, France was trying to reform its increasingly dysfunctional army, and some of the reformers made an issue of the fact that commoners couldn’t get promoted to higher positions. Surely, a properly meritocratic army would be more efficient than one that saw itself as a place to park the listless, and often talentless, sons of the nobility. But all attempts to make the army accept non-nobles in commanding positions were defeated. The problem was that France now had a large class of impoverished nobles, for which some sort of exclusive jobs program was absolutely necessary. They didn’t have diversified business interests like the court nobility at Versailles; all they had was their noble privilege, and if the French state abolished the last areas where that privilege meant something, they would truly be lost.
A similar dynamic is operative in America today. The people who worked “on climate” at Twitter, now being given the ax by the perfidious Elon Musk, are openly complaining that they won’t be able to find jobs anywhere else in this economy. They are, of course, right to worry. One of the biggest and least-talked-about social questions in the West is how to economically provide for our own modern version of France’s impecunious nobles: that is, how to prop up high-status people who can’t really do much economically productive work.
In my own country, Sweden, the state picks up a lot of the slack. Here, small municipalities hire dozens or hundreds of communicators, consultants, and other plainly nonproductive personnel, and attempts to do something about it run into a very simple question: Where else are these people supposed to work? Who else would hire them? Though few will say it openly, the city of Uppsala’s nearly 100 communicators have nothing to do with communication, and everything to do with preserving social stability. It is, in essence, just part of a massive jobs program.
In America, that jobs program is only partially covered by the state. Private companies like Twitter have therefore been expected to shoulder the burden and make sure the scions of the professional-managerial class can find lucrative work, even when there is no real economic reason to pay them. That system is now buckling under the sheer amount of waste and parasitism that can no longer be covered up by cheap money and easy debt. Musk makes a useful scapegoat here, but none of this is his fault, nor could he change this dynamic if he wanted to.
In an earlier column, I ended with the following question: “Gen. Mark Milley infamously testified before a congressional hearing that he wanted to understand ‘white rage.’ But who right now is prepared for progressive, multiracial, demisexual rage, as the core social groups driving progressivism in America are hit the hardest by layoffs and the end of Silicon Valley subsidies?” That rage is no longer coming—it’s here.