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Musk Becomes The Prince of Twitter
Machiavelli on Elon's Prospects for Reforming His Corrupt Newly Acquired "City"
“It is as difficult and dangerous to try to liberate a people that wishes to live in slavery as it is to try to enslave a people that wishes to live in freedom.” - Niccolo Machiavelli [Discourses on Livy, III.8]
As you have surely seen, Elon Musk, the king of the shitposters, has succeeded in his bid to buy Twitter. Naturally, there was been all sorts of ridiculous commentary from the class of “journalists” who thrive on Twitter, as I covered both in my previous article about Musk, and my recent piece about Taylor Lorenz. To this class of people, tools of the oligarchy who serve as opinion gate-keepers, the liberation of the Twitter community from the financial industry is apocalyptic. And of course, they have nothing but nonsense and tyranny to say about it:
This group represents the upper class of Twitter, and it is probably the only place they have ever been happy. However, the bad takes on this are all over the internet, so I am going to focus on something much more useful and timeless: what Machiavelli can tell Musk about how to rule his new virtual city.
Applying Machiavelli’s advice to business is not novel: there is in fact practically a whole genre of such texts. However, those books are primarily based on The Prince and are telling a person how to connive and get ahead, which are useful skills for climbing the corporate ladder. Musk is in a drastically different position, coming in having bought the massive company outright. Twitter is very much like a city, having a huge amount of residents, laws, enforcers, critical infrastructure, etc. If Musks’s intention is to bring back free speech, he is indeed a man trying to destroy tyranny and corruption in this awful city while setting up honest, long-lasting institutions, which favor liberty and encourage stability. Discourses on Livy is largely about this exact topic, except, of course, regarding physical cities and actual governments instead of a corporation with an enormous amount of employees and resident users. In this metaphor, the employees constitute his military, however I will not be focusing on this aspect as it is an iron law of human history that with enough money you can hire an essentially infinite amount of goons, and Musk has the money; if Musk has serious problems with the employees, which he likely will, I will try to write another article with Machiavelli’s advice on setting up an army, which truly requires a whole separate article than his advice on leading the citizenry. Since human nature and society everywhere are largely the same, there is much the world’s richest man could learn from history’s greatest theorist of practical politics.
The previous rulers of Twitter were a close oligarchy of board members representing woke financial interests. Under this leadership Twitter has become incredibly corrupt, unfair, and propagandistic; the institutions at Twitter are arbitrary, secretive, manipulative, and propagandistic. [Twitter’s trajectory was actually notably close to the classic “cycle of constitutions” described by Polybius and many others, until Musk broke the cycle.] The ruling class and their sycophants want you to believe that Twitter only restricts “hate speech” and that free speech is dangerous to minorities. The reality is that Twitter has banned conversation about a huge number of topics, often with explicitly political goals. There is a lot more going on than Twitter blocking slurs, and there has been vast censorship campaigns since Alex Jones was famously removed from social media in 2018. They blocked the true Hunter Biden laptop story right before an election; they permanently banned Donald Trump for spurious reasons; there were mass propaganda and censorship campaigns for every aspect of the covid nonsense; “Misgendering” is a speech crime; and Russia-Ukraine censorship has reached epic proportions. At the same time, Twitter’s dominant class are neurotic, over-privileged lunatics who hate dissent and always support the current thing- while considering themselves individualistic victims.
When Elon Musk made his initial purchase filing with the SEC, it included as some sort of statement-of-intention, “since making my investment I now realize the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.” This is to say, he sees that Twitter is hopelessly corrupt in its current management form. This is why Jack Dorsey left as CEO, regardless of whatever words he couched it in. Dorsey himself recently stated that the Board of Directors has "consistently been the dysfunction of the company” [when asked “are you allowed to say this” he humorously answered, “no.”] After Musk’s purchase was accepted, Dorsey expressed his strong support of Musk’s one-man rule:
Machiavelli would agree with Musk’s and Dorsey’s assessments here, with Book I Chapter 9 of Discourses titled “That a Man Must be Alone If He Wishes to Organize a New Republic or Completely to Reform Its Ancient institutions.” The truth is that not everything can be done from consensus, especially when there are existing entrenched power structures. Machiavelli gives the example of the great Spartan “reformer” [reactionary, actually] Cleomenes:
“He realized that he could not do this good for his native city if he did not become the sole authority, believing that because of human ambition, he could not help the many against the will of the few, and taking advantage of the right opportunity, he had all the Ephors murdered and anyone else who could oppose him.”
While Musk doesn’t appear to have plans to punitively purge the former ruling class from Twitter, but by his purchase he has wholly removed the Board of Directors from power, and they have no way to get it back. He does not need to work with them, and this makes it far more viable to restore liberty at Twitter. This is the point Musk is currently at, and so far he is in line with Machiavelli.
The task Musk faces will be challenging even with his well-known managerial excellence, as he will face great opposition from Twitter’s employees and the blue-check segment of his user base, and further the various power structures in broader society opposed to him. Machiavelli titled Book I Chapter 16 of Discourses, “A People Accustomed to Living under a Prince Maintains its Freedom with Difficulty if, by Some Accident, it Becomes Free.” This is a remarkably relevant description, as Twitter is full of both employees and users who prefer rigid social control enforcing a corporatist center-left ideology to be an essential feature of governance. Machiavelli describes these groups as such:
“That people is no more than a brutish animal, which, while still ferocious and wild by nature, has always been kept imprisoned and enslaved, and then, left by chance in an open field, unaccustomed to feeding itself and not knowing the spots where it might seek refuge, becomes prey to the first person who puts it back into chains.”
This description greatly explains how they enjoy the woke system of corporate control: it tells them the limits of appropriate thought, and then they don’t need to have intellectually defensible positions. While it is intolerable for a free-minded man with pride to have to grovel over nonsense, for a man of no pride it is an easy system to reflexively apologize and say the newest oath that puts you on the “right side of history.” Nothing scares this crowd more than having to make independent moral or intellectual judgments for which they are personally accountable, and not being able to pass off their transgressions against decency as being in the defense of a theoretical crippled trans immigrant. It is most likely that Musk will demand clear reasoning behind decisions and not accept woke nonsense.
Musk’s other problem is he is existing within a society that hates freedom. This has always been true of the world, and upstart countries like the United States only ever get support from people who want to stick it to their enemies [which is part of why so many of us support Musk.] Machiavelli writes, also in Book I Chapter 16:
“A state that becomes free creates for itself enemies rather than friends. All those who took advantage of the tyrannical government and who fed off the wealth of the prince become hostile members; having lost the possibility of privilege, they can no longer live content, and each of them is forced to try to retrieve the tyranny in order to return to his former authority.”
This is a real threat in an era where they keep dragging social media CEOs in front of Congress. Presumably Twitter being privately owned would somewhat reduce their purview to do this- as if that matters- and more importantly Musk would be near impossible for them to work with in that context. Still, already Psaki is out there talking about ways the government could further control social media:
He’s dealing with some powerful people who don’t like that he’s going to embarrass them, so we’ll see how this power struggle plays out. Some are arguing that this wouldn’t have been allowed to happen if it presented a threat, but the ruling cabal never wins every time, and faction amongst the elite usually exists; it is in fact most unusual that all the major institutional power is as closely aligned as it is now. I think this is a major problem for them, since their entire hegemony is a house of cards based on obvious lies and most of all, censorship. Musk will need to deal with this class and their power on Twitter all at once, as Machiavelli writes in chapter VIII of The Prince:
“Injuries should be inflicted all at once, for the less they are tasted, the less harm they do. However, benefits should be distributed a little at a time, so they may be fully savoured.”
If Musk can upset this class all at once, but benefit them with good management and rewards over time, they will grow to accept their new ruler and can be neutralized as a long term threat.
So, on his own as a man though backed up by vast wealth, and facing multiple kinds of opposition, there are three main things Musk needs to consider in ruling his newly won kingdom: the liberty allowed to the population; whether to find support from the nobility or the commons; and how replace Twitter’s hopelessly corrupt institutions with credible, long-lasting institutions. In Chapter VI of The Prince Machiavelli writes, “Those who…become princes through their virtue acquire the principality with great difficulty, but they hold on to it easily.” But has Musk conquered Twitter, or has he simply been ceded the right to try to try and conquer it? The latter seems more apt, as there will be a huge number of oppositional employees some of whom the company cannot currently be ran without.
Musk’s primary claim for his choice to change the regime of Twitter is to increase liberty; this mostly applies to free speech, however, as Twitter is a speech platform. Thus, on Twitter few of our other rights apply, what applies is our right to discuss our other rights. I realize that Twitter is a private business but you would find your human rights with the government also only actually exist insofar as the public and the government have some sort of agreement on rights and thus if we agree with Musk on rights those rights exist on Twitter as much as in any republic.
Left to their own devices, it is clear that Twitter users would never have the ability to gain liberty on the platform, due to the severe power imbalance and a ruling class who hate and fear freedom. However, here once again Musk has created a favorable situation for himself through taking the company private, as Machiavelli writes in Book I Chapter 17 of Discourses:
“It must be taken as absolutely true that a corrupt city living under a prince can never regain its liberty, even if a prince and his entire family are done away with, indeed, even if one prince does away with the other, and without the creation of a new ruler, the city will never be at rest until the goodness of a single man, along with his exceptional ability, keeps it free.”
Though this is a situation where a close oligarchy is being replaced with a prince with newly created power, this quote does well to describes Musk’s position wherein to succeed he has to convince powerful Twitter users that they want or can at least tolerate freedom, while managing to maintain the platform’s continued functionality. No one exploits a bad policy faster than the internet, so every change Musk makes presents a large risk. But, people don’t choose liberty because it is easy, they choose it because it is celestial and glorious. He will find that if he has an eye towards liberty but remains firm, the users will respect what restrictions he does put in place in return for his fairer management; the fact is liberty works significantly better than tyranny and is easier to manage.
Musk’s next big concern in running our shining “city” is if he should get support from the commons or the “best men.” Of course, the answer here is clear, as he seems to have an “Every man a king” attitude towards blue checkmarks and all his support comes from the unwashed masses. There are several reasons why Musk’s favoring the commons is the correct move if he wants his rule over Twitter to be secure. Musk is part of a long line of ultra-wealthy men, stretching from Pericles to Trump, who have betrayed their class [or at least made a show of doing so] and relied on the public for support. Such men are generally crude, strange, and shock the social mores of the upper class, but the plebeians take delight in their behavior and their wars with the oligarchy.
In Book I Chapter 5 of Discourses, regarding which class is a better guardian of liberty, Machiavelli writes:
“The guardianship must be given to those who have less of an appetite to usurp it. No doubt, if we consider the goal of the nobles and that of the common people, we shall see in the former a strong desire to dominate and in the latter only the desire to not be dominated, and, as a consequence, a stronger will to live in liberty, since they have less hope of usurping it than men of prominence; just so, since the common people are set up as guardians of this liberty, it is reasonable to think they will take better care of it, and being incapable of appropriating it for themselves, they will not permit others to do so.”
This aligns with what I have seen, insofar as the blue checkmarks are terrified of their coming lack of dominance, but the commoners don’t actually have the desire to dominate the bluechecks: though they certainly do laugh at their tears. The other advantage of having the support of the people is it is easier to control an oppositional few with favors and punishments simply because there are fewer of them. In chapter XIX of The Prince, “Of Avoiding Being Despised and Hated”, Machiavelli writes:
“In most cases, so long as you do not deprive them of either their honour or their property, most men live content, and you only have to contend with the ambition of the few, who can be restrained without difficulty and by many means. What makes him despised is being considered changeable, frivolous, effeminate, cowardly, and irresolute. From these qualities, a prince must guard himself as if from a reef, and he must strive to make everyone recognize in his actions greatness, spirit, dignity, and strength.”
This presents some challenges for Musk, as he is both erratic and a shitposter, so constancy and avoiding insults is not his strong suit. We are talking about someone who recently mocked a former-richest man with this tweet:
This behavior is actually probably wise while rallying support, as Machiavelli writes in Book I Chapter 16 of Discourses,
“He must first examine what the people want, and he will always discover that they want two things: first, to take revenge against those who were the cause of their being enslaved, and second, to regain their liberty…he will discover that a small part of the people wish to be free in order to command, but all the others, who are countless, desire liberty in order to live in safety.”
By mocking Bill Gates in this fashion, Musk is showing the people that they too will be able to use Twitter to attack the most powerful in our society. However, Musk should try to reduce this behavior after taking power, as in the long run it will generate unnecessary hostility among the nobility while also being unnecessary to maintain popular support. Overall, Musk is in a great position for popular support, especially as he has fervent support from people who relish in his weirdness, and he will be wise to rely on popular support while simply managing the unhappiness of the reduced erstwhile nobility.
Musk’s greatest problem is giving Twitter new institutions. There is always much resistance to this type of change from a city’s entrenched interests, which in this instance are the employees, high-follower bluechecks, and advertisers. I’m not going to worry about advertisers because if he can maintain users advertising will remain desirable; further, they are seeing that “Go Woke, Go Broke” is real. In Book I Chapter 18 of Discourses, titled, “How a Free Government Can Be Maintained in Corrupt Cities if One Already Exists, or, If One Does Not Already Exist, How to Establish It”, Machiavelli writes:
“As for changing these institutions all at once, when everyone realizes they are no longer good, let me say that this ineffectiveness, though easily recognized, is difficult to correct, because to do so ordinary practices are no longer sufficient, once ordinary methods have become wicked, and it is necessary to turn to extraordinary methods, such as violence or arms, and to become above all else, prince of the city, and able to arrange it as one wishes.”
Here Musk is yet again at an advantage by his decision to go private. Him buying shares to get onto the board was an ordinary method of reforming Twitter, but he saw his goals would be impossible, and thus he seized total power; there is nothing ordinary about making the largest private purchase in human history, as Musk has just done, so he has shown himself willing to employ extraordinary methods. Simply by having the power to implement these reforms Musk has made them possible. However, he also needs to heed Machiavelli’s advice in Chapter VI of The Prince:
“There is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dubious of success, nor more dangerous to administer, than to introduce new political orders…it happens that whenever those who are enemies have the chance to attack, they do so with partisan zeal, whereas those others defend hesitantly, so that they, together with the prince, run the risk of grave danger.”
Musk’s ideas for new institutions at Twitter are strong, but they will also upset many. He will fight “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” and other aspects of what he calls the “woke mind virus”: though wokeness is alleged to help the powerless, it has extreme institutional support and is broadly used to bludgeon perceived demographic enemies. Shant Masrobian has proposed that Musk invite a “counter-insurgency” of people whose job it is protect speech. As it stands these companies are full of people who specialize in banning speech but few if any who specialize in protecting it. He also wants to verify all humans who request it, destroy the spam bots, make the algorithm open-source to increase trust, and implement clear and rational ban policies. In doing so he can create political equality on Twitter by ending the platform’s policies of promoting some narratives and suppressing others.
For all of the claims that white people just want to be able to use slurs, no one actually thinks its viable to have a wholly uncensored commercial social media platform in the modern era: what people want are clear rules with an eye towards liberty and to be treated fairly. Elon Musk says it will be fair if the 10% most extreme on each side are equally unhappy:
This actually shows a nuanced view of managing a large amount of people, and this attitude will serve him well, even if it is relatively more censorious than I would prefer. I have a high level of confidence that if Musk can make these changes Twitter will become a much, much better place, as these are all quality institutions, and could serve as a model for a much improved commercial internet which actually sees the value in balancing liberty and restraint. A major theme of Discourses is that conflict between the plebeians and patricians was the source of most laws which benefited human liberty, and this will also be true of Twitter. Machiavelli writes in Chapter I Book 6, “It is necessary to organize it like Rome and make room for the disturbances and widespread disagreements as best one can.” This is in keeping with Musk’s management style, where he sees the value in conflict and disruption and is a constant but prudent innovator.
Elon Musk faces many challenges in turning Twitter from a cesspool of bluecheck wokester oppression into a shining city of liberty which will be an advantage for Twitter users and all of society. As one of history’s great men, if anyone can do this Musk can. However it will be necessary for him to be willing to change with the times, as it was this specific historical moment which favored Musk conquering Twitter. Machiavelli writes in Book III Chapter 9 of Discourses:
“When a man with one mode of conduct has been very prosperous, it is impossible to persuade him that he can do as well by proceeding in a different manner; it happens that fortune varies for a single man, because she brings about the changes in the times while he fails to modify his methods. The downfall of cities also arises from their failure to modify the institutions of their republics over time.”
Musk has weathered changes in fortune before, including almost losing his entire empire, and he has shown he can respond to changes of fortune with virtue [the main benefit of studying history, according to the ancient historians such as Livy], but it will be a persistent challenge for him to continue to adapt to circumstances, especially for something like Twitter which is at the forefront of social manias.
We will see how this goes. Twitter is already rapidly improving, as shown by this hilarious thread of who has lost and gained followers since yesterday’s announcement. I personally know several people who have joined Twitter since yesterday, and I’m sure the “Very Serious People” will be wrong again and Musk’s ownership will increase Twitters users while only losing the most insufferable ones. Despite opposition from all the institutions in Twitter and society at large, the biggest challenge Musk will face is from within, as few men in this situation actually have the wisdom, virtue, and self-control to give the Twitter public liberty and allow them to remain free. As Machiavelli wrote in Book I Chapter 10 of Discourses, titled “The Founders of a Republic or a Kingdom Deserve as Much Praise As Those Who Found a Tyranny Deserve Blame”:
“In the end, almost all men, deceived by a false good and a false glory, allow themselves, either willingly or through ignorance, to pass into the ranks of those who deserve more blame than praise, and having the capacity to create, to their everlasting honour, either a republic or a kingdom, they turn to tyranny, failing to realize how much fame, how much glory, how much honour, security, tranquillity, and peace of mind they are losing through this choice, and how much infamy, disgrace, blame, danger, and anxiety they incur.”
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