On Friday afternoon, Elon Musk appeared to admit defeat: Twitter’s revenue, he declared, was collapsing, on foot of a campaign by progressives to get advertisers to boycott the platform in protest at his ownership, and one supposes, his commitment to “free speech”:
Twitter has had a massive drop in revenue, due to activist groups pressuring advertisers, even though nothing has changed with content moderation and we did everything we could to appease the activists.
Extremely messed up! They’re trying to destroy free speech in America.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 4, 2022
Whether or not you agree with the boycott campaign – and yours truly thinks it nuts – there is something intoxicating about it which explains much of the present state of the world.
Here we have, after all, the world’s richest man, admitting – or seeming to admit – that he has been laid low. Not by another billionaire. Not by the power of Governments. Not by some natural disaster, or market movement. No – by the little guy. A hundred thousand grungy kids and latté drinking feminists and snarky, low paid journalists whose whole life seems to revolve around their blue tick status on twitter.
Those people. Individually, nobodies.
Together: Able to send Elon Musk, of all people, into a flop sweat.
Progressive cultural power is, above all, attractive. Not to you or me, maybe – but it is certainly attractive to those who revel in it. When writing about it, conservatives like me often refer to it as a reign of terror, or use phrases like “cancelling” or “silencing” to describe how that power is wielded. We rarely consider who it is wielded by.
We have a tendency, for example, to focus on the powerful enemies: The big “woke” corporations. The NGOs (my own bugbear). The media. That’s an easy story to tell ourselves, because there’s no shame in being beaten down by a schoolyard bully who is bigger and meaner than you are – the shame is on them, not you. And there’s truth to that.
But we fail to appreciate the many ways in which this power is attractive. The way it sucks people in, and tribalizes them. Makes them feel part of something bigger than themselves. You’re no longer just an angsty teen in a basement somewhere – you’re now part of an army, crusading for justice and a better world. An army that regularly – usually – wins.
There is, to my mind, no coincidence in the fact that as organised religion has retreated from the public square, organised progressivism has taken its place. No other political ideology or social movement replicates what it offers.
First, it offers righteousness: Progressives tell it thusly – that they are fighting for the little guy against the oppressors. They’re for the oddball, and the weirdo, and the person cast aside: The trans teenager, or the troubled gay person, or the battered down migrant, or the pregnant teenager. Their enemies, by contrast, are cold-hearted brutalisers who use lies and bigotry to hurt these people. Progressives have one of the oldest stories of all time down pat: Goodies versus baddies.
Second, it offers a sense of belonging: Progressivism is inclusive. You need no qualifications. You need no original ideas. You need nothing at all, in fact, but an internet connection, and your anger. Your anger is welcomed, in fact, because it is always righteous. If you feel you are the victim of something – whether that be parents, or teachers, or society – Progressivism affirms you and says “your anger makes you one of us”.
Third, it offers power. This is the bit that progressives deny, but it’s central to their appeal. You can hurt your enemies. You can make them lose their job. You can shut them up. You can wound them, as the world has wounded you. No longer are you afraid, as a progressive (except perhaps performatively) – because now, the powerful must be afraid of you. They might be added to lists of “bad men”, as happened in the US recently. They might say the wrong thing and go to jail, or, at minimum, lose their jobs. Everyone in the whole world, suddenly, is at the mercy of what you find offensive. It must be intoxicating. It’s one reason why JK Rowling drives the progressive internet so demented: Not because of what she says, but because she seems immune to their power. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.
Elon Musk, likewise, is a threat to that power. He’s a threat to the whole progressive superstructure, because if you take away the power to threaten, and the power to silence, and the power to shut down, then your whole ideology and movement loses some of its appeal.
Which is why there is this enormous effort now to take down Elon Musk, and make him bend to their will, before it is too late. Nothing Musk says is untrue: At the time of writing, he had not changed a single thing about Twitter’s moderation or speech policies. He is literally being targeted for two reasons: First, because of who he is, and second, because of what he might do. We live in a dictatorship of the mob, and that mob, like all who gain power, fears to lose it.
Lots of people who are conservatives assume, I think, that Elon will “win”, in the end, because he is uncancellable, like JK Rowling. I’m not so sure, myself. We’ll see.