Musk, Twitter, and the power of ownership
Private property means that capitalists get to do whatever they want.
Earlier this week Elon Musk purchased Twitter and immediately disbanded its entire board of directors. This may have surprised you if you get your ideas about power from the populist right, who have been telling us that “power has passed from individual bourgeois business to a new ruling class” — the so-called “managerial elite.” Evidently, their “cultural power” with its full arsenal of “wokeness” and “cancel culture” couldn’t do a damn thing to save them in the end.
Even their enormous incomes couldn’t help them! These are no blue collar workers; these are multi-millionaires with astronomical salaries. “Heterodox economists” like Lévy and Duménil tell us that capitalism is over and we now live in the age of “managerialism”, in which “the main social split is nowadays between lower and higher wage earners, and increasingly so in conformity with the rise of managers”; but Musk had no problem whatsoever kicking some of the highest paid managers in the world to the curb.
Capitalist discourse loves to dismiss Marxist economics as a kind of obscurantist and contrarian analysis that no sensible person could possibly take seriously, but look at how everyone is talking about Musk right now and it’s obvious that we all know exactly what happened. He won because he took ownership of Twitter. That is what allowed him to crush the assembled power of the professional managerial class — Twitter’s corporate governance structure, the complex of NGO professionals and celebrities and academics who protested his takeover, all of it — on a whim. Taking ownership was his coronation, and the moment it happened everyone knew that his opponents would never prevail.
If you take one lesson from the Musk takeover, it should be this: capitalists can do this whenever they want. And even the highest-level managers and corporate executives know it, which means that they can only either defer to ownership or risk getting fired. This is a point I spelled out a few months ago when former WWE CEO Vince McMahon resigned:
Whether or not he has plans to exercise that power [majority ownership of the the WWE] 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.
Private ownership confers a unique form of power unlike anything else in our politics. It matters more than professional titles, than academic degrees, than cultural norms and values, than the power of free speech and public reason. Even the state’s victory against it isn’t assured. And there is no form of power concentrated in fewer hands.
Nor is there any form of power that we meet with less skepticism. If you don’t believe me, just pay attention to how we talk about Musk’s power-play moving forward. You’re going to see a lot of talk about how Musk is a bad apple, one of those dreaded right-wing Silicon Valley billionaires. You’re going to hear about the rising tide of fascism, driven by vague hatreds of egalitarianism and freedom. You’re even going to hear some talk about “corporate” power, as if Twitter’s board would still be in control if it were structured slightly differently. But what you won’t hear is skepticism of the basic legal, political, and economic institution — private property — that actually keeps Musk in control.
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