pirate wires #70 // who are the “elite,” and what happens when they turn on each other? the rise of musk: new kind of status for a new kind of country
The thing about rich kids. With a national politics increasingly defined in terms of the “elites” and their dominance over the country, the question of who actually counts as “elite” has naturally become its own, hotly-debated subgenre of the culture war. Day after day, a parade of rich kids with powerful jobs in media, government, and tech retreat behind the language of oppression and pretend to be helpless. At first glance, the behavior seems clownish and deranged, as if perhaps elite Americans somehow genuinely don’t know who they are. But this kind of hipster dance we do in which the class best categorized by the word “elite” wants nothing to do with it, while annoying, is basically rational. America is clearly, in some important sense, not working the way it once did, and people are looking for someone to blame. In response, aristocrats are scrambling for a popular weirdo among their ranks to scapegoat, an innate impulse followed to its grisly conclusion since the dawn of time. But every now and then a scapegoat inspires broader countercultural movement, weirdos win the status game of thrones, and all the markers associated with power change. This is how the Baby Boomers won the 1960s, which in turn reshaped America. Today, with new influence and wealth never before so easy to attain, and a small but growing crop of elite Americans challenging authority from within the class, it seems we’re on the precipice of another cultural paradigm shift. The hall monitors are not amused.
A couple weeks back, after Nina Jankowicz was forced to step down from her position as Executive Director of the White House’s newly-formed “Disinformation Governance Board,” the Washington Post declared the woman was a target of disinformation, and the “victim” of an “unrelenting barrage of harassment” (mean tweets). This was strange language for an unelected bureaucrat charged by the government, for the first time in American history, with the tremendous power of discerning fact from fiction for the country. Jankowicz was framed by the Post as a kind of humble “disinformation researcher” (which, ok lol) appointed to a simple and important job. She was then destroyed, the Post argued, by a shadowy cabal of powerful trolls. But separate from the Post’s account, which of course amounts to fan-fiction, it’s worth narrowing in on a single, telling mischaracterization: Jankowicz didn’t conquer the Washington snake pit and assume a position of major influence because she was uniquely qualified for running the federal arm of our sprawling, decentralized, national censorship apparatus. Jankowicz secured her position because, as an elite American, she knows a lot of very powerful people — which is, itself, power. Was her fawning press unaware of her rank? Of course not. Her fawning press is from the same, elite class.
Earlier this month, CNN’s Oliver Darcy shared a wild clip from Fox News in which a guest breathlessly declared “American journalists are part of the elite. They are rich.” Widely mocked by reporters and media personalities on Twitter, the rebuttal was, roughly, ‘journalists are poor, actually.’ Because journalists are poor, follows the logic, they can’t possibly be “elite.” But while the average journalist’s salary is not high, the average journalist is not poor, and it’s certainly not true the average journalist working for a major media company is powerless.
Leigh Giangreco sort of accidentally conceded the power of journalism when she cited Zoey Barnes, a fictional character in House of Cards, as a more realistic example of the average reporter. Sure, Barnes has a cool job, but she lives in a shitty apartment. Again, it was a retreat back to the narrow lens of wealth. But what Giangreco somehow failed to see is Barnes, from the laptop in her shitty apartment, shapes the national news, and ultimately helped install a violent psychopath into the White House. In other words, I agree, this is basically an accurate depiction of successful young journalists, which is to say elite. And by the way, the Netflix employees who produced House of Cards, and architected the metaphor now shaping our real-world national discourse? Also elite.
When it comes to congressmen and senators, we mostly agree: there is real and obvious power in government, by way of both the power we elect, and the small community of power grown around the marble halls of Washington like some polo-playing, vaguely European kraken’s tentacles. Who are your parents? Who are they friends with? Harvard or Yale? We tend to imagine elite Americans as the kind of people who went to private school in the country, and summer as a verb. Every one of them is related to a Kennedy, somehow, and is that a British accent? Cardigans. Sailboats. Absolutely massive Nantucket energy.
But fair elections and economic growth guarantee change, which means power in a free country can’t sustain itself. American power is therefore supported by extended networks of wealth and influence. While money and media can’t do much directly in terms of force, the human desire for resources and status indirectly shapes the world. There is no such thing as a powerful person without money or influence, which naturally entangles the wealthiest and most influential people in our country with power. There is a hierarchy here, and certainly a few social media executives or columnists at the New York Times are less powerful than the President or a billionaire. Then again, a few Twitter executives erased our last president from the social internet, and influential newspaper columnists have taken down extremely rich people for years — both Travis Kalanick and Palmer Luckey lost their jobs because of a distorted and unrelenting press. Would you rather be rich? Maybe, but that doesn’t make you any less influential.
The only reasonable definition of “elite” must concern proximity to, and influence over, power. A millionaire who lives in Alabama, where he never left, and makes his money off a small chain of 7-Elevens is not elite. A reporter who can’t afford her shitty, overpriced Manhattan studio, but has friends in the White House, is obviously elite. Antonio García Martínez put it a little more simply:
I’m in rough agreement with Antonio. But not all journalists in shitty apartments are created equal. What matters most is who you know, and who you can reach.
If you hold elected office in good standing with your peers, you are elite. If you are rich and active in politics or culture, or rich and active in the worlds that shape politics or culture, you are elite. If you are widely read or watched or listened to in well-connected circles of politics and culture, with influence enough to alter elections and unseat corporate executives, I hate to break it to you in this trust fund hipster age we live in, but — yes — you are elite.
Your status, however, is increasingly in question.
War of cool. Back in October, when shipping gridlock paralyzed the supply chain and shelves around the country emptied, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation was on paternity leave, and the Los Angeles Times had more or less confined its coverage to photographs taken thousands of feet above our crippled ports. We knew something was wrong, we just didn’t really know what. Then Ryan Petersen, the CEO of Flexport, chartered a boat, navigated the ports, documented the causes of paralysis, and offered his analysis. This included a sharp critique of leadership, and a prescription for how to immediately solve the problem. At the time, I noted this looked like the future of industry media. While there will always be value in good, hard reporting on things that matter, most of what makes up our “tech press” is really just opinion and analysis from people with no experience in technology or business. But this was also a self-made man, worth probably hundreds of millions of dollars, taking to the water, and helping to solve a crisis. It was as exciting and aspirational as it was productive: Ryan’s influence led directly to political action. Money, influence, power. This was elite.
By its nature, industry mints new business institutions, and the new reality of social media has already amplified the influence of founders. As they build new philanthropic arms and cultural institutions elite status will slowly build around them, and they will increasingly not be beholden to alliance with the old class, nor forced to support its ethos. There will slowly grow an elite America within elite America. Then, talented people will have a choice. This is very bad news for powerful people who suck.
Around the world, America has steadily retreated from relevance, as two hostile, foreign superpowers become more dangerous by the day. At home, the cost of housing, fuel, and food has skyrocketed. The inflation we were told was transitory was, long story short, not. Every one of our major cities suffers from a homeless crisis, inextricably tied to a drug crisis, while dealing fentanyl in cities like San Francisco has been made effectively legal. There is endless defense of such incalculable failure of leadership from the press, and such defense has greatly eroded its legitimacy. The sitting power class has had a rough couple years since the “mostly peaceful” summer of 2020, in which rioting was legal but attending your grandmother’s funeral was not. Defense of power no longer resonates. This is why elite America discarded persuasion and opted for control — control of your body, by way of vaccine mandates, and control of speech, by way of a decentralized national censorship apparatus. When Elon Musk threatened to take Twitter private, and permanently end the platform’s institution of political censorship, elite civil war was certain.
Over the last eight weeks, Elon has received threats from Congress, the inevitable, anonymous accusation of sexual assault, and characterizations as white supremacist on account of he was once a child in South Africa. There have been hundreds of stories written about him in the Washington Post and the New York Times, with Post “coverage” made almost entirely of vicious attacks. The ladies of the View are not impressed. But the man will not relent. No apologies have been made. No rings have been kissed.
Elon simply insists, again and again, American leaders are incompetent losers, the people who “cover” American leadership are incompetent losers, and everything the power class wants (war, niche woke shit, censorship) is deranged. He promises something different, and the more time passes without his destruction the more high-status he, and everything he represents, appears. Maybe “elite” doesn’t mean attending the Met Gala in an “eat the rich” dress, or monologuing on the latest intersectional justice grievance. “Elite” might just look like being ungodly rich, siring 1000 superchildren, and literally landing rocketships while simply not caring what a Brooklyn-based vegan who works for Buzzfeed thinks about free speech.
An elite American needs at least one of two things: influence and money. The technology industry mints both, and it’s already drifting into ideological alignment with Elon. The longer he doesn’t combust, the less he represents a culturally divergent oddball, wealthy but easy to ignore or demonize in the press, and the more he markets a new series of status markers. People already like him, and if the Washington Post can’t kill him people will want to be like him. On this trajectory, an entire court of shitposting tech gods is inevitable, and if they present both a clear critique of present power as well as a coherent and positive vision for the future they will absolutely ascend. What it means to be elite will change, which in turn will change America. Technology is accelerating this trend.
The op-ed is already close to swallowed by the newsletter, and the television talking head is nearly replaced by talk show hosts on YouTube. The sovereign influencer can now directly reach an audience of millions. He can also raise money from his audience, which means he is not only on the path to greater influence than his analog counterparts, but to greater wealth. Provided access to creative tools continues unabated, and further tools proliferate, rogue musicians, artists, gamers, academics, and politicians will all proliferate alongside rogue entrepreneurs, discarding the elitist ethos and behavior of the last few decades, and embracing something new.
Back in the 90s, a lot of people wanted to be as rich as Bill Gates. But did anyone ever want to be like him? Today, kids around the country have posters of Elon on their wall. From the ashes of sclerotic 20th Century loser culture could finally rise a new kind of shitposting techno-king: unapologetically successful, unafraid, and influential. He will have fans. His fans will vote.
The future of America will always be elite. But elite Americans will not always be pathetic. Buckle up.
Mike, Another reliably interesting but even moreso, "new" view on the current class issues. To make this perfect, seven paragraphs from the end you are missing an "is" in a pivotal point in the final sentence: "elite civil war IS certain". Might as well have no errors...lol.
This is actually one of those rare encouraging pieces in a mostly morbid world -- so gets double props. Many thanks.
Hey Mike, another great post—this one incorporating an unusual “It was the worst of times, it is the best of times” structure which is unexpected and welcome. You hint you’re going to reverse Dickens in your comment:
“But every now and then a scapegoat inspires broader countercultural movement, weirdos win the status game of thrones, and all the markers associated with power change. This is how the Baby Boomers won the 1960s, which in turn reshaped America. Today, with new influence and wealth never before so easy to attain, and a small but growing crop of elite Americans challenging authority from within the class, it seems we’re on the precipice of another cultural paradigm shift.”
I’m wondering whether your reference to a “scapegoat” indicates an awareness of the thought of René Girard. Pardon me if by any chance I’ve missed previous Girardian references in your earlier posts.
Either way, you might be interested to know that it just so happens that a brilliant lecture on Girard was published this week on YouTube by David Perell and Jonathan Bi. They’re both elites by your definition, and they discuss the existential suffering that led them to thought of Girard, a sentiment that is also all over Twitter and Discord: “make money you don’t need to buy things you don’t want to impress people you don’t like . . . just despair and hollowness.”
In your hopeful, looking-forward section “The War of Cool” your examples of Ryan Peterson and Elon Musk (and, I would argue yourself and people like Peter Thiel) point to the virtuous functioning of Girard’s notion of “mimetic desire”. This is a concept with the profound explanatory power of “natural selection”, and its negative functioning has produced the world of Covid hysteria, the summer of 2020, BLM, CRT and ESG—and so on. These dynamics are fast generating popular longing for the scapegoat event shown by Girard to be a recurring event in human history.
But “mimetic desire” is also positive, and when operating within a smoothly functioning system like capitalism and the nation state (before both institutions were corrupted by the negative functioning of mimetic desire), the positive functioning of mimetic desire generates a ratchet mechanism that channels aggressive, selfish and violent urges into a safer, wealthier, more peaceful and freer world for all.
You may already know all about René Girard—that seems fairly clear in your latest post. But if not, here is Jonathan and David’s lecture, and I’ve selected the moment late in the lecture where Jonathan describes how love, truth, innovation and violence all acquire new meaning in the context of mimetic desire: https://youtu.be/5Qu6vBebwwg?t=4177
Even if you’re an expert on Girard (and I’ve read all his works), I’m confident you’ll enjoy the entire lecture and find it, as I do, to be an excellent and apposite gloss on your outstanding post about elites and the hope-inspiring “War of Cool”.