The Twitter coup
"A strategic victory is a victory that makes other victories possible."
Could Elon Musk buy Twitter? What would it mean? And what would he do with it? As I told a friend: “I rarely think anything is meaningful. But I think this is.”
What is meaningful action? As any dramaturge knows, there is no action without conflict. Action in a conflict is strategically positive if it makes further action easier. For example, in a shooting war, a battle is won if the result of the battle is to make the next battle easier. The same is true of a political confrontation.
The occupation of Ottawa was a defeat, not a victory (which should be easier to see now that it is not the Current Conservative Thing), because it left the powers that be stronger, and the powers that would be weaker. The regime fortified itself against any future clever democratic uses of eighteen-wheelers, and field-tested new tools of financial suppression. The participants and organizers were left with legal problems. The audience went home with their hard-ons and have forgotten the whole thing. They did see more “proof” that the regime is what they think it is—as they thought.
Almost every conservative action is a defeat by this standard, which is why only losers are conservatives. For instance, traveling in Austin, I noticed that the streets had been largely cleared of homeless encampments (which have been pushed into the nearby forests). Most people take this as a conservative victory. It is actually a defeat.
It is a victory in the ordinary sense of the term—an action which gets what the actors want. It is a tactical victory—but a strategic defeat. At a party the other day, I spoke to one of the people who orchestrated this “victory,” and explained why I saw it this way.
In general, victory on an issue-based political rebellion is a strategic defeat, because it reduces the energy of support. Aristocratic support is crucial for any serious rebellion. Severe disorder in aristocratic cities produces rebellious thoughts among aristocrats, who start to question truths they had previously held sacred.
The first stage of these rebellious thoughts is the “unprincipled exception.” In the 1980s, it violated the principles of many aristocratic New Yorkers to vote for “tough on crime” Republicans. Seeing the results of their own principles in their own lives, they did not react by becoming Republicans—they reacted by voting for a Republican. They did not change their principles—they created an exception to those principles.
There are three fates for such an exception. It can stay what it is; it can go away; or it can expand to become a genuine change in principle. Because electing a Republican mayor created a tactical victory that gave the voters what they wanted, the exception went away—its troubling cognitive dissonance was no longer needed. Had the issue persisted, the exception would have stayed as it was or expanded.
Instead, thirty years, the progressive citizens of a mostly-safe, mostly-orderly New York looked at themselves and asked why they tolerated such unprincipled policing. Finding no answer, they rolled it back. Inertia no longer protected the consequences of the exception—and the conservative boomers in Queens and Staten Island who had allied with the exception were moving out and dying off. And the new consciousness was specifically programmed against “broken windows” and “stop-and-frisk.” In the end, the tactical victory was lost and became near-impossible to repeat. Finem respice.
The general lesson we learn from this is that, for a rebel, all true victories are total. He who makes half a revolution digs his own grave. While this is generally true—there are exceptions. This is one.
The Twitter coup
Can Elon Musk pull off a hostile takeover of Twitter? Maybe. I am not the expert—my interest in corporate governance is purely abstract.
It is important to note that the only possible victory would be local but total. These are the only kinds of incremental wins that rebels should shoot for—“niche coups” which completely and irreversibly capture a part of the whole.
Victory is only achieved if Musk completes his whole plan—buying Twitter and taking it private. This is because, as Musk fully recognizes, compliance with power is economically optimal. It is easy for power to control a public company—since a public company must be managed to maximize profit and serve the shareholders, just set up incentives which ensure that compliance is profitable. If there is only one shareholder and he has ulterior motives beyond profit, this control mechanism ceases to work. In any other situation, the management has a fiduciary responsibility to comply.
Would it be a strategic victory? Again, a strategic victory is a victory that makes other victories possible. It goes without saying that a monopoly social-media platform not beholden to the prestige media and its single synoptic perspective would be a source of enormous power that could create all kinds of tactical and strategic victories.
What would be the right thing for Musk to do with a private Twitter? Let’s assume he was to follow a Jack Dorsey-style management strategy and appoint himself CEO, taking full responsibility for policy and strategy and leaving operating decisions to some competent flunky.
It is not enough to say that he should “end censorship.” What is the difference between censorship and moderation? Censorship is just bad moderation. If a Musk-owned twitter ended moderation, the results might even be bad enough to destroy a stable monopoly like Twitter. Not much else could.
One possibility is the creation of a formal judicial system—not entirely unlike Facebook’s “supreme court,” but with Musk himself as the final court of appeal.
In classical monarchies, the king was the supreme judge. Obviously, the king (like any supreme body) cannot constantly be bothered with trivia. The purpose of a judicial system is therefore to scale and standardize the will of the king. Or in this case, the CEO. The definition of the rule of law is that power’s will is uniform and predictable—an especially hard problem for a mercurial king like Musk. But not an unsolvable one.
Today on Twitter, as on most social media, justice works in a roughly Stalinist style. The normal penalty is permanent execution. There is no transparent explanation for why an account is executed, before or after the execution. It has simply “violated the Twitter rules.” The public rules are extremely abstract and could theoretically justify almost any execution. The private rulebook by which the secret police, or “Ministry of Trust and Safety,” operates, is of course as secret as everything about the secret police.
Of course, it is easy to observe that a two-day-old spam account does not deserve a six-month trial, with lawyers, before getting the bullet it needs in the back of the neck. Due process in this context must not be a clone of the IRL judicial system, which is more broken than anyone can possibly imagine.
And there is a simple solution to the problem of scaling due process: scale the level of due process to the size of the account. An account with a million (real) followers might well deserve a six-week public trial, perhaps even with some kind of counsel. The spammer with 20 followers? Any cop can shoot him, as at present, and leave the body by the side of the road as a warning to others.
There is a use for online Stalinist justice—it is only an injustice when it is disproportional to the user’s investment in the service. When Twitter is your career and any cop can just shoot you, an eerie atmosphere of terror pervades everything.
This atmosphere of terror is not in any way necessary—except to comply with the regime, whose rules are inherently inconsistent and contradictory—because its principles are inconsistent and contradictory. Musk can actually solve this—and no one else can.