A Class Analysis of the Twitter Crisis
by Benjamin Studebaker
In recent weeks, there have been extensive conflicts between Twitter workers and Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk. One user made an attempt to analyze the conflict in class terms, framing it as a clash between “entrepreneurial capital” and the “professional-managerial class”:
I think this badly misreads the situation. The professionals who work at Twitter are wage-earners who don’t even have a labor union. They don’t dominate anything. But it also made me think–why isn’t there a better class-based reading of the conflict? Let’s give it a go.
The capitalist system purports to do a couple different things:
- It empowers individual genius, allowing the innovative entrepreneur the freedom to move fast and break things.
- It constrains would-be rent-seekers through impersonal institutions–states, markets, and corporations.
These two things do not go neatly together. Sometimes, the “genius” owners are constrained by the impersonal institutions. Other times, the owners try to use their personal wealth and power to rig the impersonal institutions and dominate them. In this way, capitalism is always caught between the personal rule of oligarchs and the impersonal rule of competitive structures.
Capitalism celebrates the freedom of the oligarchs, up to a point. If particular oligarchs get too big for their britches and start causing trouble for the owners as a class, those particular capitalists will be reigned in by the impersonal institutions that protect the capitalist class as a whole from the tyranny of particular capitalists.
Oligarchs can try to control the state–but to do so, they have to use their wealth to compete for influence. They have to fund candidates, or run for office themselves, or fund lobbying organizations of various kinds. Oligarchs can try to dominate the market, by slowly constructing monopolies that undermine competition. But they risk alienating customers and attracting anti-trust action from the state. Oligarchs can also try to control companies, by taking them private or by limiting the amount of stock they offer to the public. But companies still have to survive in the market. Even if the oligarch uses his own personal funds to defy market imperatives, those funds eventually run dry if the defiance goes on for too long.
Twitter does not have a monopoly over social media. It competes with Meta (Facebook and Instagram), Alphabet (Google and YouTube), and ByteDance (TikTok) for revenue, and it gets the vast majority of its revenue from advertisers. The advertisers support heavy-handed content moderation. Individual companies want to protect their brands from association with controversial views. But beyond this, many capitalists who own these companies fear Donald Trump and the right far more than they fear Bernie Sanders and what remains of the left. They do not want to support a website that facilitates the growth of a political movement they feel threatens their interests. The media companies are especially hostile. They view Twitter as a tool independent “journalists” can use to spread both misinformation and true information that conflicts with their editorial lines. The media companies work hard to portray Musk and Twitter negatively, defending their position both by withdrawing their own advertising revenue and by driving other advertisers away from the site.
Because Twitter depends on the advertisers for funding, it cannot defy those advertisers in perpetuity. Either it must comply with advertiser demands, or it must find an alternative source of revenue, or it must become dramatically less expensive to run, or some combination of these things. Musk has tried all three:
1. He’s made a point to say he will continue to do content moderation.
2. He’s tried to get users to pay for Twitter, through an $8/month subscription service. He’s also considered putting a paywall in front of high-frequency users.
3. He’s tried firing a large percentage of Twitter’s workers to make Twitter less expensive to run.
Because he’s firing so many people, advertisers don’t believe he’s capable of sustaining the level of content moderation they demand. Musk’s strategy therefore depends on his ability to do some combination of #2 and #3.
One immediate problem is that many of the people Musk needs $8 from have the same political views as the advertisers. They like content moderation, and they don’t want to help Musk evade pressure from advertisers. Another problem is that the Twitter workers have the same political views as the advertisers. They don’t want to help Musk evade pressure from advertisers. So, they try to sabotage him by leaking embarrassing things, parodying Musk and satirizing his efforts.
This leads some to think that this is a conflict between a single oligarch–Musk–and the professional journalists, celebrities, and Twitter workers who are part of the professional-managerial class. But this ignores how the professionals come to have the political views they have. Professionals have these views because these are the views they needed to have to move up in their careers. The people who hire them select for these views.
If you work for a media company, or a university, or for any of the large companies that purchase ads, your employer often expects you to have certain attitudes about workplace culture that make it difficult for you to be openly on the right or on the left. You might be able to get hired with unconventional political attitudes, but it is much harder to get promoted or to get moved into leadership roles. This is because the people who own these companies have centrist liberal sensibilities, and they want their employees to espouse and promote views similar to their own. This is especially true when we are discussing companies that create content that is viewed by the public. The people who pay for content want content that aligns with their values.
Oligarchs like Musk or Donald Trump are not in a conflict with the professionals, they are in a conflict with the rest of the capitalist class, which is broadly establishment liberal. Most oligarchs are people who were perfectly happy donating to people like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. They have no use for the left, and they only have use for the right when the left poses a credible threat to their pocketbooks. Over the last five years, the left has collapsed as a serious political threat, and as this has happened the oligarchs’ willingness to tolerate the right has diminished. Musk is an exception–while he himself may not be part of the right, he at minimum thinks that the right should be tolerated on Twitter. This has made him many enemies in a short span of time.
The professionals’ views are socially constructed by impersonal institutions the capitalist class funds, controls, and shapes. The universities teach the kids establishment orthodoxy in part because it’s hard to become a tenured academic if you can’t attract grant money, and the organizations that fund grants are themselves funded by oligarchs who espouse establishment orthodoxy. The universities also teach establishment orthodoxy because it’s in the career interest of students who wish to become part of the establishment to have the right set of manners, to have the set of attitudes that helps them get ahead. It’s an important part of the social capital students receive. Employers promote the workers who have been successfully socialized to espouse establishment orthodoxy, and the workers who get promoted tend to promote workers who are like themselves.
In this way, the professionals are taught to behave like the people who hire them, to have the values their employers have. This makes them easy to manage. They personally identify with the goals of their employers, and are thus willing to work longer hours for lower wages. They have been socially engineered from an early age to be compliant. Honors students swiftly learn that the best way to get good grades is to write papers that agree with teacher or–better still–further refine and develop the teacher’s own views. The most efficient path into a professional job is to adopt the values of your superiors, using your creativity only to develop those values in ways that advantage your superiors, helping them achieve their goals.
So, when Twitter was taken over by an oligarch whose values were at odds with establishment orthodoxy, the Twitter workers had a choice. They could either adopt Musk’s values, so as to make themselves useful to him, or they could defy Musk and get rewarded for their defiance by the many oligarchs who subscribe to establishment orthodoxy. Most won’t choose Musk, for two reasons:
- The socialization they’ve received predisposes most of them to oppose the values they associate with Musk
- The other oligarchs are stronger than Musk. Most employers in the tech sector will be impressed to hear stories in which underdog workers get fired for defying Musk in the name of establishment values.
It’s not really a free decision on the part of the Twitter works. It’s a decision that is made based on the way they were socialized by the impersonal institutions to which they were exposed in their youths, and it’s a decision they make based on which oligarchs and companies are most likely to be in position to hire them going forward. Neither of these things are in their control. With no independent organizations of their own to build any level of class consciousness, they are completely dependent on the oligarchs and on the organizations oligarchs fund to socialize and employ them. They are not able, as a class, to develop an independent worldview.
So, what we have is not a conflict between oligarchs and professionals, but between different factions of the capitalist class, with professionals used as pawns in a larger struggle. Many Twitter workers will have their lives upended because they were caught in the crossfire. When they are fired they will rationalize what has happened to them, imagining that they gave up their jobs to defend their values. In fact, they lost their jobs in the service of their employers, past and future–those who paid them once before and will pay them once again.
As for Musk? Eventually the cost of opposing the rest of the capitalist class will prove too much, even for him. He will have to start running Twitter in a more conventional way to persuade the media to relent and the advertisers to return. He can persist for a while by running Twitter with his own funds or with funds from his other companies, but if it goes on long enough, the rest of the capitalist class will influence other impersonal institutions to make his life unpleasant. They will target his other businesses, target him personally, harass him in every way until he sells Twitter or runs it in the conventional way. In the end, Musk will neither save Twitter nor destroy it. He will simply serve as a further illustration of the power of the market to discipline the wayward.
This was Facebook’s fate. After the 2016 election, Mark Zuckerberg became the subject of a series of embarrassing congressional hearings. His company was threatened with anti-trust action and state regulation. Zuckerberg responded by offering to help the state regulate the sector. He also modified the Facebook algorithm to make it favor family and friends over political pages. Today, Facebook is much less useful to the left and the right than it was in 2016. There is less political content, and political posts spread less effectively. But Facebook’s user base remains far larger than Twitter’s, its advertisers are very happy, and–despite efforts by Apple to undermine the effectiveness of Facebook ads on its devices–it continues to mint money. It is only because Zuckerberg threw billions of dollars into virtual reality headsets that the company is in serious financial trouble today. Meta can survive mistakes that cost billions of dollars because Zuckerberg quickly understood the need to accommodate the political establishment and acted swiftly to rebuild advertiser trust. Today, Facebook and Instagram are painfully uncool, but they aren’t going anywhere. Zuckerberg has all the money he needs to play losing games with his headsets, provided he runs his websites in a manner that accommodates the political interests of the rest of the capitalist class.
Musk will learn the same lessons in time, and Twitter will become every bit as boring as Facebook. But first, for a little while, there will be an appearance of crisis, during which Musk will struggle against the chains he unwittingly forged for himself. This sideshow will entertain some and horrify others, but, ultimately, it will not matter very much. No single capitalist can, in the United States in 2022, from the left or from the right, defeat the capitalists as a class.