Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, new owner of Twitter and self-proclaimed free-speech absolutist, would rush the internet and his Slack channels to fire and silence workers who disagree with him.
Americans often celebrate business leaders and entrepreneurs as icons of freedom and the expansive national spirit of free enterprise.
The hypocrisy should not be surprising. Americans often celebrate business leaders and entrepreneurs as icons of freedom and the expansive national spirit of free enterprise. The truth, however, is that CEOs are bosses, and much of the typical subjugation of the average worker occurs at work. Musk’s treatment of his employees is a reminder that even bosses who claim to embrace freedom often don’t.
Musk took over Twitter less than a month ago and immediately started making changes. Struggling with huge debt from its inflated purchase price, Musk’s first cost-cutting measure was to lay off half of Twitter’s workforce, including vital executives. An engineering manager vomited after learning he was going to be forced to eliminate hundreds of people.
People who have been laid off might consider themselves the luckiest at this point. Musk has spent the past few days rubbing shoulders with the kind of far-right individuals who have long railed against Twitter, against “the liberal elite” and really anyone who tries to regulate or criticize racism and bigotry. Indeed, Musk is now acting as if he thinks his employees are lazy subversives who need to be disciplined and crushed.
And he quickly got to disciplining and crushing. Musk ditched the company’s work-from-anywhere policy, requiring employees to spend at least 40 hours a week in the office or risk being fired. (He now says he will make exceptions for some “exceptional” employees.) According to Bloomberg, he also said he actually expects 80-hour work weeks from them. This week, he emailed all staff telling them they had to be “extremely hardcore”. If employees didn’t click yes and buy this new version of Twitter, they would be terminated with three months of severance pay. Hundreds naturally headed for the exit.
Musk’s new policies, including the botched (catastrophic) rollout of a new subscription verification service, were also not well received by employees. He was also not very receptive to feedback. On the contrary, he fired Twitter employees who publicly disagreed with him over engineering issues within the company.
It also fired employees after expressing what looks like mild dissent on Twitter’s Slack channel. And not only did he fire them, he publicly mocked them. “These geniuses will be of great use elsewhere,” he sneered on (of course) Twitter.
Musk initially claimed he bought Twitter because he wanted to encourage greater freedom of expression on the platform. Notably, he said he wanted to unmuzzle users like former President Donald Trump, who was banned after he used the social media site to push his election denial ahead of the Jan. 6 uprising.
But no one should be surprised that “free speech” for Musk really means free speech for the powerful. It is a banal and discouraging impulse. Most bosses aren’t as power-hungry and vindictive as Musk. But workplaces are extremely hierarchical, and workers generally have limited power to protect themselves or speak openly to their employer about company policy.
In the United States, employment is generally at-will, which means employers can fire you for any reason, including for criticizing the boss, or responding to the boss, or expressing mild skepticism about the boss plans for the business.
In the United States, employment is generally at-will, which means employers can fire you for any reason.
Being unable to criticize the boss is not just an inconvenience; it is potentially dangerous. When you can’t talk, you can’t say you’ve been abused. And the bosses already have wide latitude to mistreat workers. They have power over employee schedules. They can prevent you from sleeping. They can unilaterally break agreements. They may insult you in public. And if you don’t like it, they can strip you of your income and health insurance and try to blacklist you from other employers.
And it happens across all industries and socio-economic strata. This dynamic is at the heart of the #MeToo movement. Producer Harvey Weinstein Targeted Actors for Harassment and Abuse; they were afraid to speak out against him lest he harm their careers. His power and ability to silence those with less power in the workplace has allowed him to get away with this abuse for four decades.
But we don’t have to give the bosses so much power. A stronger safety net, universal health care, more secure unemployment benefits and UBI would protect people from the worst harms of losing their jobs, and therefore make it harder for bosses to be terrible. Unions can also help workers fend off unreasonable demands – which is why unionized construction sites are much safer than non-union sites.
It would also help if we did not think of freedom of expression and action as embodied primarily in the unlimited emphasis of the extremely powerful. Musk can say ugly things and bully those around him with impunity. But that does not make him an avatar of freedom of expression. It just makes him another obnoxious titled billionaire white man with little accountability.
The measure of freedom should be the experience of the powerless, not the powerful. Elon Musk doesn’t seem very good at managing Twitter — or even building cars. But like other bosses, he has a genius for manufacturing unfreedom.
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