big tech

Pity the Billionaire

Marc Andreessen: a member of the professional-managerial class? Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Marc Andreessen — a pioneer of the web browser, a Facebook board member, and a top venture capitalist — is worth an estimated $1.7 billion. His VC firm, Andreessen Horowitz, controls billions more in capital and is a major force in guiding the next generation of well-heeled start-ups. Regularly lionized as a titan of the tech-mogul class, both an OG innovator and an astute investor, Andreessen is helping to lead the web3 charge as his firm plunks down billions on crypto companies. He seems to live well: In the last six-plus months, he’s spent $255 million on three homes in Malibu. He ticks some of the other popularity metrics: a million Twitter followers, a regular on the conference and speaking circuit, a member of the Internet Hall of Fame. He’s donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democrats and Republicans, and he has the ear of fellow billionaires including Elon Musk. Andreessen is a big deal — a tech, business, and political power player — in whatever sense that still matters.

For Andreessen, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much. This putative titan of industry has spent the past week tweeting about how he and some of his fellow billionaires are less powerful than one might think. In fact, they might not even count as “elites,” that most hallowed signifier of political and economic influence. “The elite ruling class in our society is based on power, way more than money,” Andreessen tweeted over the weekend, perhaps from one of his several mansions. “Our oligarchic elite ruling class freaks out about Elon precisely to the degree they think he’s not onboard with their program.”

In subsequent posts, Andreessen has attempted to position himself as a member of the professional-managerial class, or PMC, a swath of middle- and upper-class corporate paper pushers who occupy their own anemic position in the overall societal power structure. If that seems as though it’s getting into a heady realm, then Andreessen is glad to oblige. He’s posted a series of quotations, links, and comments on various PMC theorists and his own interpretations of where a billionaire venture capitalist might fit in this arrangement. Quoting everyone from George Orwell to James Burnham, the author of The Managerial Revolution, Andreessen has held court online with a retinue of followers willing to engage with the idea that his sociopolitical role doesn’t differ much from that of, say, a highly successful corporate lawyer.

Since the 1970s, tweeted Andreessen, “the PMC has eaten up most of the power and most of the money in our society while feeling rebellious and aggrieved the entire time.” Asked how he, a billionaire VC, could be a member of anything but the capitalist class, Andreessen responded, “Ah! But most of the capital I speak for is not my own,” referring to the institutional backers who pour billions of dollars into Andreessen Horowitz’s investment funds. “That is what makes my current role classic PMC.”

One could get profitably lost in tracking down some of Andreessen’s intellectual references, but it’s just as useful to step back and examine the kind of move he’s attempting here. However earnestly suggested, he’s adopting a false populist pose that differs only in aesthetics from what Donald Trump so successfully practiced and what Tucker Carlson has honed each night in recent years on Fox News. In this vision, real power dwells with them — some other, possibly hidden power elite, be they woke progressives letting San Francisco fall to pieces or the menacing globalists of Trumpist lore. It’s all the same. The incredibly rich, well-connected guy talking to you, the one who might have helped create the very interface through which you’re consuming his thoughts, is actually pretty powerless, culturally marginal, easily canceled. Same goes for the ex-president and the Swanson foods heir squinting his way through an eight-figure salary and the largest cable-news audience in the country.

Andreessen would hardly be the first billionaire to claim he’s somehow powerless or even persecuted. In 2014, Tom Perkins, a billionaire co-founder of Kleiner Perkins, a major VC firm, compared San Francisco’s treatment of the rich to an early episode in Nazi Germany’s genocide of the Jewish people. In a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal, he wrote, “Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?” Given a chance to walk back his comments, Perkins apologized for the Kristallnacht reference but stood by the Nazi comparison. At the time, Andreessen denounced Perkins, who died two years later, calling him an industry relic who was also “the leading asshole in the state.”

While it might be unfair to draw a one-to-one comparison, Andreessen and his shit-posting buddy Elon Musk are displaying some of the same traits of the ornery rich guy with a persecution complex and tendency toward histrionics that underwrote Perkins’s outburst. And like Perkins, Andreessen and Musk seem to lack much political perspective — that is, if we are to take them at their word. It simply goes against any reasonable notion of what power means that the richest man in the world, one who can troll and bully his way to the captain’s seat of a major communications platform, is not counted as a member of the “oligarchic elite ruling class.” Musk draws down billions in government subsidies and contracts. His every utterance, especially the really dumb ones, has the potential to move markets and make headlines. (He is also, again, the richest human alive.)

Deceased rageaholic gossipmonger Andrew Breitbart was famously devoted to the idea that “politics is downstream of culture.” Political influence flowed from pop-cultural ubiquity and popularity; it was necessary to seize control of the Zeitgeist. A decade-plus later, feeling that they have lost the culture — that a slippery wokeness has infiltrated corporate life, that not everyone on Twitter wants to genuflect before them, that some people want them to pay more taxes, that public reputation can’t be easily stage-managed — some of today’s billionaires adopt a self-pitying pose. As Andreessen described the members of the PMC, they are “aggrieved” that they are not properly recognized and appreciated. It is not enough that they’ve accumulated vast wealth and the resources to enact their techno-utopian dreams. They want to be recognized as builders, as great capitalists contributing to the common good through their visionary work.

It should sound ridiculous. The vision is paltry, as exemplified by Andreessen Horowitz’s lucrative but socially regressive investments in crypto exchanges, NFT markets, digital-ape collectibles, and other forms of web3-enabled gambling and speculation. It’s a bit of a fall from helping invent the web browser. Yet one of the few things Twitter is good for is offering a venue for publicly mocking the powerful. Sometimes Marc Andreessen, billionaire thought leader, might benefit from hearing he’s full of shit, which is perhaps why he maintains an extensive block list that includes many journalists he’s never spoken to. (A quote recently highlighted by Andreessen: “Elites crave separation from the masses.”)

Some political and cultural figures, especially on the right, have treated Musk’s purchase of Twitter as some sort of righteous moment of outsiders crashing the corporate ball, as if recently departed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey weren’t a leading influence in urging Musk’s takeover bid. Even so, we are led to believe that whatever Musk and his coterie are supposed to represent — a devotion to free speech, anti-wokeness, creative destruction, or just the political efficacy of trolling — they are still outsiders. Borrowing billions from Wall Street firms to finance his takeover (and receiving a $400 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz), Musk is still not an elite. He’s the man challenging their dominion. “A whole giant edifice of preference falsification is wobbling,” Andreessen recently wrote, “and all the right people are nervous.”

Projection, perhaps. In truth, not much has changed. Maybe a few people will heckle Andreessen on the website his buddy is now buying. Musk, whose fortune dwarfs Andreessen’s own mind-boggling bank account, extends his influence ever more, like Rupert Murdoch gobbling up a country’s newspapers. Just don’t call them powerful elites. They’re something else.

Pity the Billionaire, Marc Andreessen Edition