Is it okay to be authoritarian, as long as it’s in the name of the right moral values? Some “post-liberal’ conservatives would say so. America might have been founded on the liberal separation of church and state, the argument goes, but that’s running out of road. Instead, to save the American polity and way of life, church and state should once again draw together.
But if there’s one lesson we should take from the ongoing spectacle surrounding the Hunter Biden laptop, it’s not the avalanche of claims and counter-claims about censorship or bias, or the sulphurous accusation of stolen elections. It’s that polite proposals about a bit more Christianity in the public square are hopelessly behind the times. All of politics is already post-liberal, and mainstream power has already explicitly embraced a faith-based moral order.
That is: American Church and American State have already ended their three-century separation. And Laptopgate is most significant in what it reveals about the contest now on for a suitable post-liberal political regime: a battle that pits the “human” against something more like a “swarm”.
To recap, shortly before the 2020 election, a laptop was discovered in a computer repair shop which was later verified as belonging to Joe Biden’s son Hunter. Emails and other information were found on the laptop that revealed Biden fils to have been up to some dodgy stuff. The story was broken by the Right-wing New York Post, shortly before the 2020 election. It was swiftly censored on Twitter, where for some time it was impossible even to share the story via direct message.
Now, Elon Musk has released internal Twitter emails from back then to journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss. Last week, Taibbi published a lengthy Twitter thread based on this data, setting out his view of the context and events surrounding Laptopgate. And these confirm the extent to which the Biden laptop story was censored, and how flimsy the pretext was for doing so.
Needless to say, the story has reignited Right-wing grievance. Blake Masters fumed: “Any candidate who explained how Big Tech put its thumb on the scale was called an ‘election denier’ — but the simple truth is that the Hunter Biden laptop censorship put Biden into the White House, full stop”.
What is Elon Musk playing at with this intervention? He has claimed that his aim in buying Twitter was to hold it to public neutrality: that is, to the order governed by liberal proceduralism. But this can’t actually be done, thanks to the digital revolution in which Musk himself is an active, heavyweight player. I doubt Musk is unaware of this. Instead, we should read the Twitter files as an intervention in the bitter contest over the form politics should take after liberalism.
If post-liberal theorists called for a re-convergence between political power and an overt moral framework, they got their wish during the pandemic — in classic Monkey’s Paw style. For Covid-19 did indeed prompt Western governments to bypass liberal norms in the interests of a common good. The twist is that as it turns out, Christian-flavoured conservatism isn’t the only moral matrix in town. Rather, to escalating murmurs of disquiet from liberals on both Left and Right, the moral outlook that reached pandemic-era hegemony was the fusion of progressivism with the interests of technocapital whose core credos make up the now-famous “In this house, we believe…” lawn sign.
We might characterise this as progressive post-liberalism, colloquially known as “wokeism”. Its proponents, like all post-liberals, believe that authoritarian measures are just fine, provided they’re ordered to the right moral priors. Because from a post-liberal perspective, whether progressive or otherwise, some values are so existential that “neutrality” is itself a moral failure: “bothsidesism”.
This re-moralisation of power is chiefly driven by progressives, not conservatives, and constitutes the nuclear core of contemporary “culture wars”. It’s also the backdrop to the Hunter Biden story, and why that story matters beyond American electoral politics. For since 2016, Twitter has emerged as one of the most powerful digital-era mechanisms for elite consensus-formation, with a reach well beyond the United States.
Twitter leaders have justified this role with a claim to liberal neutrality — even as it has grown increasingly clear that content moderation decisions taken by the platform’s employees in fact skewed progressive post-liberal. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the younger graduates who flock to the tech sector skew progressive — especially the graduate women who, in that sector, cluster in non-coding roles (such as, for example, content moderation). But when a platform that serves in effect as public square is governed according to an overt moral framework, what you have is something like a soft theocracy.
So is Elon just trying to end this theocracy, purge the bad actors, and make Twitter into a liberal neutral space again? Perhaps. But I think it likely he knows how futile such an attempt would be. For there’s no putting the post-liberal genie back in the bottle: it is to a great extent an effect of our transition from print to digital, a profound shift that makes key liberal ideas increasingly untenable.
For example, some censorship is an inevitability in the digital era. At the same time, the digital public square undermines trust in institutional authority — and also objectivity as such. It hollows out localism, attenuating electoral politics and virtualising “communities”, which in turn compromises: “losers’ consent”. At the material level, these shifts combine with the brute fact that the post-industrial masses are genuinely less essential to the functioning of the overall economy than industrial workers, meaning their voice can often safely be ignored.
Taken together, this all suggests that electoral democracy may continue to grow, if not toothless, steadily less toothful. What, then, might emerge in its stead? If the front-runner for the successor moral freamework is progressive post-liberalism, the front-runner for the corresponding post-democratic political system is still undecided. And Musk’s latest contribution to the Hunter Biden story makes most sense understood as an intervention in this contest.
The Biden administration is fond of talking about “democracy” versus “autocracy”, but it might be more accurate to talk about swarmism and Caesarism. Swarmism is a kind of post-democratic democracy: a mutant form of liberal proceduralism, characterised by collective decision-making in which no one is ever individually accountable. Instead, consequential decisions are as far as possible pushed out to supposedly neutral procedures or even machines. When NGO officials whom you can’t vote out of your political ecosystem talk about “our democracy”, they’re talking about swarmism.
Caesarism, on the other hand, looks substantially the same at lower levels. The main difference is that you get named humans in key decision-making roles — complete with human partiality, eccentricity, and occasional fallibility. Twitter was, until recently, a key vector of elite swarmism. And to swarmists, such rule by a named individual, rather than a collective and some committee-generated “guidelines”, is by definition morally wrong. This core assumption oozes, for example, from this report on the takeover, with its empathetic depiction of the anonymous, collegiate collective of sacked Trust and Safety workers sharply contrasted with the autocratic, erratic individual Elon Musk.
Some defenders of Twitter decision-making over the Hunter Biden case point to the fact that the emails reveal no overt demands for censorship from the CIA or any other political agency. But this is the point: swarmism doesn’t work like that. Consensus-formation is mystified and de-personalised at every turn. The Twitter Files are explosive because they afforded a peek under the purportedly neutral swarmist carapace, revealing not just the named individuals involved in steering it but also human fallibility and political affinities.
The Hunter Biden censorship was justified by a claim of “hacking” which (according to a source who spoke to Taibbi) was already understood as nonsense excuse after a few hours. But in true swarmist style, once that policy was agreed “no one had the guts to reverse it”. This is a world in which no one is ever directly responsible for anything — even as the things that no one in particular is responsible for come to be the very nuts and bolts of politics itself.
For example, former Twitter executive Vijaya Gadde, who played a key role in Laptopgate and was reportedly behind the decision to deplatform Donald Trump a few weeks later, was subsequently whisked through the revolving door into a Biden White House advisory gig shaping policy on “disinformation”. As a relatively faceless collective, this committee itself constitutes a kind of swarm. The rules it sets in turn constrain the larger nationwide digital swarm, by setting the parameters for “disinformation”, which is to say the moral hierarchy of the tech-enabled attention politics that has supplanted “freedom of speech”. Thus constrained, then, the digital swarm then coordinates public opinion, and by extension delivers something like the successor to “democracy”: a collective hive-mind whose currents and influencers are often mystified, but which has considerable influence, for example in shaping public policy during Covid.
The Twitter Files are Musk’s Caesarist counterpunch. Their explosive power lies in the insight afforded into how that supposedly neutral, procedural, pre-political swarmist sausage is made. By publicising individual, named actors who operated under the bonnet in a crucial swarmist political stronghold, Musk pulled back the curtain, re-humanising the swarm’s supposedly impersonal manoeuvres.
And viewed close up, this reveals that there’s nothing magical or morally refined about swarm governance at all. Rather, it’s a miasma of petty bureaucrats and petty rules, coordinated by class interests and greeting-card metaphysics, plus some algorithms and a desire to look good. It’s powered by the same backroom deals and self-interest as politics since time immemorial. In its way, it’s just as arbitrary. The only thing that’s different about it is that it pretends to emerge spontaneously.
Meanwhile, the truth is that the alternative isn’t much better. It’s just more human — something made explicit by Musk’s autocratic approach to un-banning deplatformed accounts. Musk is, after all, far from being always a populist: he may have tweeted “Vox populi, vox dei” before reinstating Donald Trump after a Twitter poll, but no such amnesty has been forthcoming for Alex Jones. It’s a fairly explicit statement about what (or rather who) serves as the backstop to vox populi, under digital conditions.
Most of Musk’s Twitter interventions make sense in this light: not as a return to liberal proceduralism, or direct democracy, or even against humans merging with the machine (something Musk seems to be actively championing elsewhere, with Neuralink). Rather, it’s a play to re-normalise accepting a final human arbiter for important decisions — even if in practice that sometimes looks disturbingly autocratic from a liberal perspective.
I’m not cheerleading for Musk as Caesar. Just because I dislike faceless proceduralism doesn’t mean I have much appetite to see political authority gathered into the mercurial hands of a transhumanist billionaire who wants to implant microchips in human brains. But the critical thing to recognise is that none of the post-democratic options are, well, very democratic at all. And short of unplugging the internet, there’s not a great deal we can do about that.
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