Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Oligarchs After Liberalism

The question for the New Right appears to be not whether we should be ruled by billionaire capitalists, but which billionaire capitalists should hold sway.

Elon Musk’s attempt to purchase Twitter is probably doomed to failure regardless of how much money he is able to raise against his shares in Tesla. But the jubilation with which his attempted takeover has been greeted by conservatives, especially those who consider themselves part of the inchoately defined “postliberal” continuum, is worth considering regardless of whether Musk and his $265 billion bring about what would almost certainly be a mass exodus from the already declining social media platform.

Asking Musk to make Twitter more hospitable toward conservatives (by changing its terms of service, say, or simply adjusting the means by which they are enforced) is precisely the sort of seemingly outmoded tactic that many exponents of a new non-fusionist conservatism otherwise reject out of hand. Since at the least the 1970s, conservatives have been demanding a seat at the table, only to discover that most conservatives ultimately conform to the ideological standards imposed by the mainstream institutions that offer them platforms, or, at best, retreat to a kind of “referee mode” whereby they offer (sometimes useful) descriptive accounts of the right and its aspirations without staking out any substantive first-order commitments themselves. For these reasons, a plea for representation, one that involves an appeal to old-fashioned liberal attitudes about the marketplace of ideas, will strike many observers of the so-called New Right as an obvious blind alley. 

Then there is the question of Twitter as a technology. It seems difficult to argue, as many postliberal conservatives have, that social media and, by extension, the internet, are fundamentally regrettable developments in our public life—enforcers of ill-considered quasi-orthodoxies, abettors of the financialization of the economy, cancers on our collective attention spans, spiritually, morally, and aesthetically, corrosive—all while insisting upon unfettered access to them. If conservatives believe Twitter is as bad as all that, why not devote time and attention to developing new structures for the dissemination of ideas (or reviving old ones)?

But there is a much more interesting sense in which the appeal to Musk tells us something about the postliberal right: its fundamental attitude toward money. A certain cognitive dissonance is implicit in the act of decrying “elitism,” however broadly and indeed nebulously defined, while practically begging the world’s wealthiest man to shore up your influence on a website whose value as a shaper of public opinion appears to be decreasing by any tangible measure. 

Conservatives who want Musk to purchase Twitter (or otherwise involve himself in its operations) are not interested in altering, or even seriously questioning, the essentially oligarchic structure of American society. Instead of committing themselves to a program of broad-based structural reform (one that might entail, for example, the nationalization of ISP, search, social media, and other basic internet functions as public utilities and thus subject to various First Amendment protections), they accept that the money power will continue to hold illimitable dominion. At the most basic speculative level, the question for the New Right is not whether we should be ruled by billionaire capitalists, but which billionaire capitalists should hold sway and what their cultural priorities will be.

I say “cultural priorities” deliberately. As far as I am aware, on questions such as the provision of health care, the decline of wages, unionization, and other questions presumably of interest to anti-fusionist conservatives, Musk has been silent, at least when his own business practices have not spoken for themselves.

Why, then, is Musk more appealing to the post-fusionist right than his immediate predecessors? And what would American conservatism look like if Elon Musk played a role analogous to that performed by the Koch Brothers a decade and a half ago? To take them in reverse order, my guess is that a conservatism in which the father of Grimes’s children replaced the Kochs or Sheldon Adelson would very much resemble the one that exists at present, albeit with non-libertarian economics once more considered a non-starter and the handful of apparently “live” issues that continue to animate social conservatives more or less abandoned. (Among other things, this would mean relinquishing the right’s opportunity to bring together a broad-based coalition of the majority of Americans with views that could be described as socially conservative and economically moderate to progressive.)

Which brings me to my first question—why would such an arrangement with Musk or similar figures be desirable to so-called postliberals? While some cynical observers might argue it is because they are insincere in their attempts to jettison conventional GOP wisdom about political economy while adopting a less defensive posture in the culture wars, I propose a more charitable explanation. It is likely, I think, that most postliberal thinkers are resigned to the inevitability of Caesarism, a Caesarism that does not destroy but only changes the terms of society’s obligations to the money power.

It is difficult to argue against such fatalism. Spenglerian gloom is not an intellectual position but an all-pervading assumption that does not admit of exceptions, even for Catholics committed to both the letter and the spirit of 1 Timothy 6:10. Still, going forward a certain degree of intellectual (and I daresay) rhetorical humility might be in order, lest un-self-critical members of the new right-wing coalition find themselves on the losing end of a bargain into which they did not realize they were entering.