MBAs Dig Up an Old Chestnut to Explain Tech Thinking

January 19, 2023

Elon Musk is not afraid to share, it is better to say tweet, about his buyout and subsequent takeover of Twitter. He has detailed how he cleared the Twitter swamp of “woke employees” and the accompanying “woke mind virus.” Musk’s actions have been described as a prime example of poor leadership skills and lauded as a return to a proper business. Musk and other rich business people see the current times as a war, but why? Vox’s article, “The 80-Year-Old Book That Explains Tech’s New Right-Wing Tilt” explains writer Antonio García Martínez:

“…who’s very plugged into the world of right-leaning Silicon Valley founders. García Martínez describes a project that looks something like reverse class warfare: the revenge of the capitalist class against uppity woke managers at their companies. ‘What Elon is doing is a revolt by entrepreneurial capital against the professional-managerial class regime that otherwise everywhere dominates (including and especially large tech companies),’ García Martínez writes. On the face of it, this seems absurd: Why would billionaires who own entire companies need to “revolt” against anything, let alone their own employees?”

García Martínez says the answer is in James Burnham’s 1941 book: The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening In The World. Burnham wrote that the world was in late-stage capitalism, so the capitalist bigwigs would soon lose their power to the “managerial class.” These are people who direct industry and complex state operations. Burnham predicted that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia would inevitably be the winners. He was wrong.

Burnham might have been right about the unaccountable managerial class and experts in the economy, finance, and politics declare how it is the best description of the present. Burnham said the managerial revolution would work by:

“The managerial class’s growing strength stems from two elements of the modern economy: its technical complexity and its scope. Because the tasks needed to manage the construction of something like an automobile require very specific technical knowledge, the capitalist class — the factory’s owners, in this example — can’t do everything on their own. And because these tasks need to be done at scale given the sheer size of a car company’s consumer base, its owners need to employ others to manage the people doing the technical work.

As a result, the capitalists have unintentionally made themselves irrelevant: It is the managers who control the means of production. While managers may in theory still be employed by the capitalist class, and thus subject to their orders, this is an unsustainable state of affairs: Eventually, the people who actually control the means of production will seize power from those who have it in name only.

How would this happen? Mainly, through nationalization of major industry.”

Burnham believed it was best if the government managed the economy, i.e. USSR and Nazi Germany. The authoritarian governments killed that idea, but Franklin Roosevelt laid the groundwork for an administrative state in the same vein as the New Deal.

The article explains current woke cancel culture war is viewed as a continuation of the New Deal. Managers have more important roles than the CEOs who control the money, so the CEOs are trying to maintain their relevancy and power. It could also be viewed as a societal shift towards a different work style and ethic with the old guard refusing to lay down their weapons.

Does Burnham’s novel describe Musk’s hostile and/or needed Twitter takeover? Yes and no. It depends on the perspective. It does make one wonder if big tech management are following the green light from 1651 Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan?

Whitney Grace, January 19, 2023


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