Elon Musk and the War Between Elites | Opinion

Elon Musk's move on Twitter provoked weeping and gnashing of teeth not heard since Donald Trump rode to the White House in 2016.

Ellen K. Pao, former CEO of Reddit, called for government regulation "to prevent rich people from controlling our channels of communication" in an op-ed for the Washington Post, which is owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos. A writer in Axios squealed that Musk "is increasingly behaving like a movie supervillain." That publication, too, has a billionaire backer in Lauren Powell Jobs, who owns The Atlantic and has a stake in Axios through her for-profit corporation Emerson Collective.

If it seems like all this wailing from the scribes of various royal courts is but a facade for competition among elites, that's because it is. Indeed, rule by elites is, unfortunately, a constant throughout history—it's what Italian sociologist Robert Michels called the "iron law of oligarchy."

In organizations of every kind, a leadership class tends to form, set apart from the rank-and-file by their skillsets, resources and power—in a word, "elites." This dynamic even applies to a mass democratic society, which cannot work without elite control over key institutions. For example, the existence of elites may be at odds with the democratic mission of a given political party, but, paradoxically, no democratic political party can function without them, because the rank-and-file have neither the means, the time nor the desire to oversee its day-to-day operations.

Hearing that might understandably grate the ears of some. But only when we deal with how the world really is, rather than how we would hope it to be, can we arm and protect ourselves from the oligarchical tendencies that arise even in democracies. These dangers are inevitable, but they can be dealt with if we are willing to soberly face facts.

And the fact is, you often need elites to challenge elites. Rome's lower classes looked to the Gracchi, two blue-blooded brothers, for aid against the Senate. The American Revolution, which severed our bonds to foreign elites, wouldn't have been possible without the august men who made the "Miracle at Philadelphia" happen. None of this is intended to romanticize Musk but to make the point that the battering rams which have rocked ruling class castles have often been propelled with the help of other elites.

Elon Musk
CEO of Tesla Motors Elon Musk speaks at the Tesla Giga Texas manufacturing "Cyber Rodeo" grand opening party in Austin, Texas, on April 7, 2022. - Tesla welcomed throngs of electric car lovers to Texas on April 7 for a huge party inaugurating a "gigafactory" the size of 100 professional soccer fields. SUZANNE CORDEIRO / AFP/Getty Images

So far, the reaction from most elites toward Musk has had all the character of British overlords demanding colonists mind their place and tongues. That should come as no surprise to anyone. Power struggles between elites endanger free speech and thought because the incumbent ruling class will close ranks to shut out the upstarts. That means creating narratives with the help of their allies in the media to frame threats to the status quo as threats to the masses. Challenges to their power, instead, become public crises.

"I am frightened by the impact on society and politics if Elon Musk acquires Twitter," tweeted Post columnist Max Boot. "He seems to believe that on social media anything goes. For democracy to survive, we need more content moderation, not less." Of course, when Boot uses the word "democracy," he's referring to the established political order—which is exceedingly oligarchic—rather than an idealized participatory system of governance. And he is right to worry about its future.

Platforms like Twitter promote some stories and trends while suppressing others, bringing peoples' energy and attention into alignment with the interests of incumbent elites. In this way, it is not merely a "private company," but a tool for controlling information. That control is essential for the centralization of power by a regime that largely rests on lies that only survive through censorship.

Twitter has suspended users for acknowledging that men are not women, for tweeting that "Joe Biden is making it easier for illegal immigrants to commit crimes" and for "undermining faith in the NATO alliance and its stability." The first two are statements of fact, and the third shouldn't be an article of faith, but all violate core beliefs in the new Nicene Creed on which this order relies. It's no surprise, then, that the Department of Homeland Security has announcedthe creation of a new office, called the "Disinformation Governance Board," that will focus on countering "misinformation" and "disinformation." It's one more way for the regime, in the face of potential threats, to control what flows into the hearts and minds of its subjects. The board's head, Nina Jankowicz, cited Musk as illustrative of the danger posed by "free speech absolutists."

Musk is flawed and comes with baggage, and it's unclear how his ownership of Twitter will pan out. But the most important thing about the moment is what it reveals about oligarchy and power in this country. Americans unhappy with our present overlords may not be able to evade the existence of elites, but they can ally themselves with ones at least more attuned to their interests and aspirations, who can help them cut the Gordian knots of power and fashion an order that better suits them.

Pedro L. Gonzalez is the associate editor at Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.