How Marxism solves today's greatest mystery in the WWE
Is Vince McMahon still in control?
These are exciting times if you are a fan of professional wrestling, but they’re also extremely dark. Yesterday, news broke that former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment Vince McMahon — currently under investigation on allegations that he’s paid millions of dollars in sex crime hush money over the years — made previously undisclosed payments of over $5 million since 2007.
Despite their (mostly classist) reputation as reactionaries, wrestling fans have generally been thrilled to see Vince finally go down. In part, this is because most of us have been convinced that something like this has been going on for a very long time. Vince has been accused of rape. He’s been accused of demanding sexual favors from his employees (men and women alike). Perhaps the creepiest part of all of this is that he has a long history of writing storylines where he plays, wait for it, a boss who demands and gets sexual favors from the women who work for him. The most infamous example of this was a 2001 incident where Vince, on live television, forced Trish Stratus to strip down to her underwear, get down on her knees, and bark like a dog. I could write an entire article about this stuff, but you get the idea.
Fans are also pleased about this for reasons that are less serious and less well-known, but that matter a lot if you like professional wrestling. Vince McMahon is insanely old. He’s completely out of touch with contemporary culture, he’s clearly run out of new ideas, and he even, if reports can be believed, is dealing with some serious memory problems. But despite all of this, Vince has spent the last several decades singlehandedly micromanaging the creative direction of WWE. And the result has been a show that has become impossibly formulaic, repetitive, boring, and outdated. When you realize what’s happening it can be truly horrifying to watch: the WWE is a multi-billion-dollar international juggernaut featuring some of the most talented athletes and entertainers of our time, and it’s been run, in practice, as the rambling puppet show of a single increasingly senile pervert.
The post-Vince rebrand
But turn on WWE right now and it’s impossible to miss that all of this is changing. Last month, news broke that Vince had officially stepped down from his role running WWE creative. After that, Paul Levesque — best known to wrestling fans as Triple H, and widely revered for his efforts to change the company’s creative direction — started talking very loudly about how things were going to change. And since then, the WWE has constantly gone well out of its way to prove it:
Austin Theory, a favorite of Vince McMahon who he relentlessly pushed as a top star despite his persistent unpopularity, getting dunked on by rivals: “Daddy’s not here anymore.”
Fan favorites Dakota Kai and Karrion Kross — who were recently fired by the WWE for reasons that pretty clearly just came down to cost-cutting and Vince not knowing what fans liked — were rehired and made their returns almost immediately. Kross is a particularly good illustration of how Vince’s influence has been ruining this company. When he began with the company, Kross wrestled as what can be best described as a kind of vaguely goth metal badass; he had a wildly popular entrance to the ring and a cool gimmick where his manager would mark his next opponent by appearing at ringside during their matches and placing an hourglass on the apron. Baffling literally everyone — from fans to Hall of Fame wrestlers to Kross himself — Vince McMahon decided to change all of this, dress him up as a cartoonish Roman gladiator, and fire his manager. With Vince gone, Kross appears to be back to his previous character.
The WWE has also reportedly negotiated the return of two of its most popular stars — Sasha Banks and Naomi. Banks in particular is generally regarded as Exhibit A of Vince’s terrible impact on the show: Snoop Dogg’s niece, a bit character in The Mandalorian, young, charismatic, and arguably the most talented wrestler to ever step into the ring, Banks (and Naomi) walked out of the WWE in May directly because of Vince’s meddling in one of their storylines.
There are all kinds of things like this happening right now, and you just can’t watch one of the WWE’s shows without hearing the message loud and clear: Vince McMahon is gone. He’s walked away from the company for good, all of that terrible stuff he was involved in was over, and fans can look forward to a whole new company from now on. If you like wrestling it’s hard not to be absolutely giddy about the possibilities, and even if you don’t you can at least appreciate so many fired workers getting their jobs back.
But we’ve seen all of this before!
The steroids trial
This isn’t the first time Vince McMahon has faced serious legal issues that threatened to end his career. In the late eighties to early nineties, the then-WWF came under federal investigation when it became completely impossible to ignore that half of its roster was obviously using steroids. Eventually Vince himself was indicted and charged with steroid distribution and conspiracy, and faced a very public trial in the media.
That’s why, as soon as the indictment hit, Vince pursued a two-pronged PR strategy. First, much like he is doing today, he made dramatic changes to the show. Gargantuan perfomers with thighs bigger than your waist and garden hose vasculature mysteriously started dropping weight and looking, well, normal; stars with bodybuilder physiques lost their prominence in the company, and guys with athletic but natural builds, like Bret Hart, took the spotlight. When Karrion Kross returns to the ring without his embarrassing gladiator outfit, it’s hard not to see an echo of the show’s aesthetic pivot a few decades back.
The second prong is even more telling, though it’s received very little attention. Just as he is doing today, Vince McMahon made a big show in 1994 of stepping away from the company. Paul Benson, writing for Inside Ropes:
With the shocking prospect of a lengthy jail term, McMahon sought to put in practice a succession plan, to run the WWF whilst he was on trial and continue to do so, long term, should he be found guilty.
Whilst McMahon’s wife Linda was drafted in to take care of boardroom matters, as Chairwoman and CEO, McMahon brought in Jeff Jarrett’s father, Head Booker of the USWA, Jerry Jarrett, to take over the creative arm of his company, with long-time associate and play-by-play commentator Gorilla Monsoon assisting him.
Even without getting into speculation about what Vince is up to behind the scenes, what we do know about this looks remarkably familiar. Yesterday, the replacement Chairwoman and CEO was Linda McMahon; today, it’s their daughter Stephanie. Yesterday the replacement for creative was Jarrett and Monsoon; today, as noted, it’s Paul Levesque — who happens to be Stephanie’s husband and Vince’s son-in-law.
Today, no one who looks back at the trial in 1994 really believes that Vince for even one moment gave up control of the company. And that’s why the big question on every wrestling fan’s mind today is one we usually wouldn’t ask about any other company: is Vince McMahon really gone?
Kayfabe and liberal ideology
With Vince’s departure — or “departure” — wrestling fans have once again found ourselves in the same situation we’re always in: trying to distinguish kayfabe from reality.
Kayfabe, for the unfamiliar, is an old wrestling term for the industry’s tradition of presenting its performances and storylines as real. Sometimes this is extremely easy to figure out; when Karrion Kross rebranded as a Roman gladiator, for example, no one really believed that he had somehow actually become one. Other times it’s almost impossible; when wrestler Big E appeared to break his neck earlier this year, viewers had no real way of knowing until after the match that the injury was real. And other times, even when we know all the facts, the lines between performance and reality remain blurred. In one sense, Vince McMahon making Trish Stratus strip down and bark like a job was just a storyline; the threat was scripted, her response was scripted, and everyone knew what they were going to do before it happened. But in another sense…Vince really could have fired her if she hadn’t performed the script, and they both knew it, even if he said that he wouldn’t have. So was in what sense was it really fake? As so often happens in wrestling, the best answer is probably that it was and it wasn’t.
Wrestling fans talk about questions like this constantly. If you watch it for a long time, you inevitably end up developing a keen talent for recognizing clues and deducing whether something is a “shoot” (unscripted) or a “work” (scripted). In my experience, wrestling fans are often way better at this than a lot of our overeducated political pundits who get paid massive salaries to do it and still can’t distinguish what’s real from propaganda. Remember all the folks who got suckered in to thinking that the massacre in Bucha, Ukraine was staged because they confused a windshield glare with a corpse waving its hand? Look at this thread of WWE fans analyzing tiny details of a video to figure out whether a John Cena loss was scripted or an accident:
…watching it back, there’s no way that wasn’t the intended finish, John clearly let go and made sure to fall on the table (Sheamus didn’t push him so if he slipped he wouldn’t have landed that far) but the one key element is that sheamus has both legs firmly wrapped around the top turnbuckle and outside the ropes. That’s what we’re thought to do when we’re not jumping/ready to jump. You’ll never see a dive, superplex, or any kind of jump where the perso has both legs outside the ring. Sheamus and Cena both know this and Cena wouldn’t have jumped with Sheamus’ legs outside the ring…
Today, wrestling fans are looking at Vince’s “retirement” much the same way — and not just in vaguely conspiratorial subreddits, but in mainstream outlets. Here’s what 2-million subscriber YouTube channel WhatCulture Wrestling was just running yesterday:
WhatCulture’s take on this has undergone an interesting shift. Just a few weeks ago, the hosts — both well aware of Vince’s past PR shenanigans with ownership — were still speculating about whether or not to believe reports that he was gone. Some of their detective work was basically identical to what they always do when they try to figure out what’s going on behind the scenes; at one point, for example, Andy Murray declares that we’ll know Vince is really gone if one of his more underappreciated wrestlers, Tommaso Ciampa, wins the championship.
Today, however, both hosts are absolutely convinced that the chairman has left forever. And their logic isn’t wrestling logic - it’s legal. Andy Murray:
It’s amazing that this stuff can arise. WWE is a publicly traded company! If Vince McMahon was secretly pulling the strings do you understand the legal minefield?
I am not going to pretend that I have much more than guesses about what Vince is really doing at this point, but from a Marxist perspective Andy’s argument has some interesting implications.
Who’s the boss?
In popular discourse about company control, you can find two ideas that people often hold at the same time even though they ultimately conflict. The first one, which Vince McMahon is leaning on right now, is that companies are basically under the control of executive management. That’s why giving up the title CEO is proof that he’s gone. It’s also why we hear so much talk about a professional-managerial “class”; if your job title begins with a C and ends with an O, you’re almost certainly running the show.
“Managers run businesses” may seem like a truism at first glance, but now consider what Murray just pointed out — that WWE is a publicly-traded company. So who’s really in charge? For all of McMahon’s supposed power, wrestling media also spends a lot of time talking about the fact that he has to report to his shareholders. And this isn’t just some irrelevant technical and legal fact; when wrestlers get fired, for example, fans and journalists usually end up pointing out that it’s what the shareholders wanted.
The tension between these two claims can often make it extremely difficult to understand who is really in control. You have to look at corporations law, at internals of corporate governance, at the structure of the company hierachy and so on; on top of technical questions you also have to ask questions of fact, like “did shareholders know this was happening?” and “was the manager exercising discretion or implementing policy?” That’s what judges and lawyers often end up doing, and it’s why popular intuitions about how actually has the power in any given situation aren’t always useful.
But in the case of Vince McMahon and the WWE, there’s really just one thing you need to know, a simple fact that cuts through all of this: as of today, Vince’s share in the company still gives him 80% voting power.
In other words, there’s a real sense in which all of those titles and all of those shareholder meetings were complete kayfabe, because functionally Vince McMahon was mostly just reporting to himself. He made management decisions, he reported on them to the company’s shareholders, and then if they decided to vote on anything he could always outvote them. Could Vince have decided to do things that cost them money? Of course! For example, illegally, it appears that Vince decided to take millions out of the company coffers to pay women hush money, which predictably ended in WWE stock getting “slammed” when the scandal eventually broke. And legally, he plainly made decisions that hurt company profits all the time; that’s why wrestler CM Punk, railing against Vince’s management in a famous rant years ago, called him “a millionaire who should be a billionaire.”
In an interview with Pat McAfee a few months ago, Vince McMahon offered a very typical economic rationale for firing so many wrestlers over the years:
If you have dead weight around…Once you’re a public company, now you got stockholders…it’s business, and there’s nothing personal about it in terms of whether I like somebody or I don’t like someone or whatever.
Here we see the function of all of this talk of shareholders and corporations and the law: to obscure the brute power that controlling the means of production gives Vince McMahon over his workers. The other shareholders don’t have that power even though they own stock; and it wasn’t even his status as a CEO that gave him control of the company, though he would very much like us to think otherwise today.
This is what Marx had in mind when he referred to financialization as a “new swindle”. It hides the fact that even though capitalists may delegate ownership of their company to shareholders in a legal sense, they have not actually relinquished control; as Lenin notes in the article above, one can have half the votes in a company that Vince has with the WWE and still effectively control it. The great insight of Marx is that if you want to know who has the power in our world, you can always look past a lot of the (often deliberately) misleading complications that liberalism creates in how businesses operate and just ask yourself who ultimately owns the means of production.
Vince’s last story
There is, of course, another reason to reject this notion that Vince McMahon has “had” to run the company this way: as soon as he left, it started to change. Workers who “had” to be fired have already been hired again. Storylines that “had” to be told have been discarded. And company sources are going out of their way to point at all of these changes as proof that he’s really gone.
But what does this mean once we recognize that Vince has not, in the sense of relinquishing his majority voting shares, actually left the company? It means that all of these sudden blessings for workers and consumers — wrestlers getting their jobs back, fans getting a watchable TV show — are functionally a way of hiding his persisting power. It keeps his scandal from becoming too much of a PR problem for his company while letting him keep ultimate control it. Whether or not he has plans to exercise that power is beside the point; at any given moment, shareholder Vince can decide to appoint a new board that will re-appoint him as CEO. And the very possibility that he could do this gives him the exact same power over management that shareholders have when Vince pleads that he only fired wrestlers because he’s a publicly traded company
I mentioned that one of the things that has made WWE so unwatchable in recent decades is its repetitive storylines. This is one reasons why people think McMahon may be dealing with serious memory loss: he keeps playing out the same narratives over and over again, and doesn’t seem to realize it. It’s tempting to see a kind of obsessive-compulsion at work, as if we are witnessing a man publicly staging his private ruminations and the greatest scale in history. Something’s been on his mind.
One of these stories has played out literally a dozen times, at least, and it goes like this: some well-known figure becomes the show’s General Manager. They wield extraordinary power, they go well out of their way to make sure everyone knows it, and the announcers — that is, the show’s narrators — do, too. This can go on for months or even years, but in the end this entire spectacle of managerial authority is always just a setup for the exact same surprise:
Even when it seems like someone else is in control, Vince is always the one who really has the power. He owns the company. And if you ever forget it, you’re in trouble.
Vince McMahon may decide not to finish the story one more time, and he may not even remember how many times he’s told it before. But the fans remember it. Management remembers it. And whether you’re working for Vince McMahon or for anyone else’s company, you’d do well to remember it too.