Musk, irked by the suggestion Meta was creating a rival to Twitter – one that would be “sanely run”, in the words of a Meta executive – challenged his fellow corporate titan to a duel, of sorts. “I’m up for a cage match if he is lol,” Musk tweeted. “Send Me Location”, Zuckerberg replied on Instagram.
The showdown is set. This tech tycoon tussle will be “the biggest fight in the history of the world”, claimed Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. “You don’t need to be a fight fan to be interested in this fight. Everybody would want to see it.”
Who to back? You could go on their politics and demeanour. Musk is the more outspoken figure, regularly accused of peddling right-wing conspiracy theories. Since he took over Twitter last year it has been condemned as a “far-right social network”. Zuckerberg has been coy about his political leanings, at most describing himself as a libertarian. Yet Facebook has long been viewed (particularly on the right) as a liberal company, for instance because it banned anti-vaccine messages during the Covid-19 pandemic and removed the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from the platform. This more or less sums up the range of opinion today: authoritarian centrism and right populism. An intra-elite affair. The fight should at least generate money for charity – “a massive number,” says White. Noblesse oblige, after all.
The bookies favour Zuckerberg (1.71m, 70kg, $100.7bn) over Musk (1.87m, 85kg, $229.5bn). Zuckerberg has competitive jiu-jitsu experience – he won two medals at Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournament in California in May – while Musk only has the masculinist mountebank Andrew Tate offering to train him, perhaps from house arrest in Romania. I’ve watched enough B-movies to know the bookies are probably right: the robot tends to beat the gelatinous blob.
Whoever triumphs, us peasants will be entertained. The feudal quality to all this is hard to miss. These new lords have deigned to descend upon the town square and we get to cheer on our favourite. Or, in carnivalesque fashion, mock and disrespect our betters by hoping they both lose.
Nowadays we delight in mocking, satirising and generally gawping at the super-wealthy. See the success of TV series and films like Parasite, Triangle of Sadness, Succession, The Menu or White Lotus. Now we get to watch two unimaginably wealthy men beat each other for a mere $100 a pop on pay-per-view satellite television, and imagine ourselves landing the blows ourselves.
This spectacle betrays a belief that nothing will really change. Our anger and frustration gets channelled to social media, where we wish grisly death upon billionaire submariners with impunity (as long as you can outsmart the algorithmic content moderation that views such wishes with suspicion). It’s a strange high-tech version of the late medieval danse macabre. But ultimately we are doing no more than getting dust on the emperor’s balls, as Slavoj Žižek’s joke has it. We will remain peasants, and they lords.
This is one of the paradoxes of our time: concurrent with soaring inequality and the accumulation of unimaginable wealth by tech barons, we have a culture that is emphatically “democratic” and anti-elitist. It is taboo to be snooty about people’s cultural consumption. “Let people enjoy things!” has become a dominant refrain of the age.
Old-fashioned elitism and its accompanying deference are long gone. Pure technocracy meanwhile – rule by expert opinion – is unfeasible. The spirit of the age is “techno-populist”. Everything must now be justified in terms of “what people want”. Perhaps better labelled “popularism”, this is visible in the constant recourse to technologies of public opinion: polling, surveys, social media sentiment analysis, and more.
To return to our two wrestling magnates, it just so happens that they are the owners of the agora in which public opinion is increasingly manifest and shaped. They are the land-lords of The Discourse. We are all hostages to their algorithms.
Our domination may even be greater than that to which medieval peasants were subjected. Back then the lord would come round to expropriate a share of the product but otherwise peasants were mostly left alone. Nowadays the tech nabobs are interested – very interested – in us. More than our labour and our rent, they also want to know what we’re saying and what we’re feeling and even what we intend to do.
[See also: I closed my Twitter account. So now what?]
It’s enough to make you believe the techno-feudal thesis. This is the increasingly popular theory that holds that major, ongoing social transformations are taking us beyond capitalism. Extreme inequality and social stratification are generating a new, rigid social structure that’s, well, feudal.
In the geographer Joel Kotkin’s account, the new hierarchy runs from the oligarchs and the clerisy down to the embattled yeomanry and finally the new serfs. The economist Yanis Varoufakis sees the post-2008 global economy as powered by the constant generation of central bank money, not by private profit. As such, companies like Facebook and Amazon “no longer operate like oligopolistic firms, but rather like private fiefdoms or estates”. Other theorists have presented their own accounts of this feudal turn. Jodi Dean has pointed to the erosion of state sovereignty, undoing the trajectory that began with the absolutist state in the 16th century, as well as the creation of rich burghs and poor hinterlands. For the economist Mariana Mazzucato, the feudalisation of the economy is visible in digital platform companies that can squat on assets, extracting massive rents.
Maybe we will see a real life version of this when Musk pulls out his “Walrus” move on Zuckerberg, “where I just lie on top of my opponent & do nothing”.
The dead weight of rentierism is ultimately at the centre of all arguments about neo- or techno-feudalism. Shocked at the massive, politically driven upward redistribution of wealth of the pandemic bailouts, none other than the doyen of the study of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, Robert Brenner, hinted that we may be moving from capitalism to feudalism.
Terms like “primitive accumulation”, “plunder”, “expropriation”, and “accumulation by dispossession” all testify to theoretical attempts to demonstrate that the economy is increasingly driven by rent, not profit. The idea is that the extraction of surplus is done by political rather than economic means, by force rather than “fair” trade in the marketplace. Big Tech’s extraction of rents via the ownership of digital assets would be a prime example: it is not production that is generating new wealth, but rather use of the law (ultimately backed up by force) that is taking it from the poor and giving to the rich.
Critics may be motivated more by a desire to denounce capitalism in moralistic terms than to provide a scientific analysis – unfairness rather than unfreedom being the central concern. Moreover, appearances can be deceiving. As the tech theorist Evgeny Morozov demonstrated last year, once you look beneath the hood, you discover that a lot of tech companies are indeed producing new commodities through the use of living labour. This is still capitalism: workers are paid fairly for the hours they work, but the value of what they produce exceeds the value of their wage. This extra bit is surplus value, the origin of profit. Big Tech companies are not just rentiers.
Once you zoom out and take in aspects like sclerotic politics, distant elites, degraded social conditions, the precariousness of labour, and capitalist dependence on the state, what you find is a capitalism in advanced countries that increasingly resembles what has often been the usual order of things in poorer, peripheral countries – a process I’ve discussed as Brazilianisation.
We shouldn’t, then, mistake the stagnation of Western capitalism – it can no longer provide popular affluence, individual autonomy, a (small) say in the running of things – for some reversion to feudalism. It is just decay, meagrely compensated by the offer of flattened, non-hierarchical, anti-elitist modes of communication and conduct – on social media and beyond.
Zuckerberg’s perennial grey T-shirt and Musk’s adolescent meme-sharing fit very nicely in this world. As will the spectacle of their sweaty scuffle. This is dressing down for decline.