Does paying thinkers free their thoughts or chain them?
There is a striking passage in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, in which he laments a certain influence that overran the life of his young, creative, happy, productive self:
Those who attract people by their happiness and their performance are usually inexperienced. They do not know how not to be overrun and how to go away. They do not always learn about the good, the attractive, the charming, the soon-beloved, the generous, the understanding rich who have no bad qualities and who give each day the quality of a festival and who, when they have passed and taken the nourishment they needed, leave everything deader than the roots of any grass Attila’s horses’ hooves have ever scoured.
I think of this passage whenever I hear about a new way, a new app or platform, by which moneyed people propose to pay creative people to keep being creative. Hemingway, of course, was getting very personal, blaming (unfairly) a few specific wealthy people—including the one who would be his second wife—for wrecking his first marriage, among other things. But his lament contains at least a kernel of universal truth: Money, though often considered liberating, can have the opposite effect.
Let’s suppose, to illustrate, that you’ve got yourself a degree in history or English literature or something equally unremunerative, and you hold down some vaguely miserable job. In the harsh light of day, your life seems a failure. But . . . by night your talent takes flight on dark wings: Your thoughts, your takes, on life, politics, the culture, the future, are praised, are liked, and are passed round admiringly (retweeted!) by a faithful flock that already numbers in the tens of thousands and seems bound inexorably for six figures. Given your undeniable achievement in mobilizing this army of mouse-clickers, is it not logical, is it not right and good, that it should attract the warm gaze of Wall Street, or better yet Silicon Valley?
Well, of course it’s logical. A mass following can almost always be monetized, which means money for “the talent,” and—more importantly and more logically—money for the money. In many cases, it may also be right and good at least in the sense of no real harm being done. Clubhouse, for example, a new audio-based app that is just now booting up with the help of absurdly wealthy venture capitalists, “features a wide variety of clubs and virtual rooms with conversations on diverse topics [such as] Startup Club, Fit, Black Wealth Matters, Leadership Reinvented, Music & Technology, Dear Young Queen, Health Is Wealth,” etc., and plans to secure their more talented conversationalists by giving them monetization opportunities. I can easily believe that in the world of web-tech investment, Clubhouse is the sort of thing that passes for genius. And if some guy quits his job at Home Depot to become an Official Deep Thinker in Clubhouse’s Astrology and Metaphysics Club (that’s another one), who am I to complain?
The problem that arises is one that should be obvious especially now, when there is such strong cultural and political conflict, of the Empire vs. Rebellion variety in which one side controls essentially all the major institutions of society and government, including the institutions of finance. Your average venture capitalist or investment banker may still be a frat boy in his heart of hearts, and an Ayn Rand libertarian to boot, but his first instinct will always be to protect his wealth and status. Thus, there will be hard limits to the “conversations” he will permit on platforms he finances. He may permit a great many ideas and arguments, about all kinds of topics, but in the long run he will not permit attacks on the Empire’s core orthodoxies.
When I was growing up in the old USA, the Soviet Union was the prime paradigm of a truth-free dystopian Empire. If a political writer there was selected by the Party for patronage or otherwise openly supported, that was effectively a guarantee that the writer was bent, or would be from then on. I never expected that the same corrupt dynamic would develop in the media of the USA (and for the most part throughout the Western world) but to a great extent it has. As a result, the kind of patronage that can be open and traceable these days is the kind that will end up narrowing the conversations that touch on politics.
This politically derived issue obviously is part of the broader problem that paying for opinions inevitably, if only unconsciously, influences those opinions—at the very least by tending to exclude opinions that are noxious to the payer. In principle, this is so even when payment is not in legal tender but in less tangible currency such as likes and follows: Anyone who has ever started a Twitter account and attracted even a small following should be familiar with that pressure to conform to what one’s followers want to hear, or at least not to contradict it too directly. It is just human nature not to want to bite the hand that feeds you.
In any case, on the web now the chief limiters of political speech are not the consumers but the platform administrators. Twitter personalities, for example, often write unpopular and/or inflammatory things, but the ones who rise to real prominence, and aim their attacks at the inner sanctum of lies and corruption that sustains the Empire, appear to be always at high risk of abrupt suspension or silencing.
Essentially, in the realm of political ideas now, any platform or patron that is allied to the regime, or subject to its pressure, is going to tend to filter out dissenting views. That filtering effect is probably going be stronger on the more prominent platforms, the Clubhouses and the Substacks and the Twitters, simply because they have more to lose by angering the imperial regime, and because their managers in some cases are true believers. But a filtering effect will always be there. Less prominent platforms that claim they aren’t susceptible to regime pressure will find out the hard way that they are susceptible—look no further than Parler.
Unless by some miracle the regime first dissolves (I imagine a 500,000-strong crowd swarming over Twitter’s headquarters in downtown San Francisco, dismantling it with sledgehammers à la Berlin 1989), I think the pressure ultimately will reach the level of server hosting services and ISPs, so that even unmonetized websites that randos (like me) use to disseminate their red pills will be shut down. And, of course, TV, radio, and print media have been, and will continue to be, even easier to control than web media. How quickly and completely the iron curtain of speech policing descends on the “land of the free” probably will depend on whether freedom-loving Americans are willing to get off their duffs and fight back. In principle, they can retrieve their country that way. I think they can’t if they stay on their duffs, voicing dissent on platforms the Empire effectively controls—that is just playing the Empire’s game.