In December 2004, during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, I spent a night in one of the many tents that had been pitched in Kiev’s central square. There were five of us inside, and it smelled like cigarettes, black tea, and sweat.
Outside, it was snowing. It seemed that everyone—protesters and riot police—had a megaphone. The voices bounced off the square’s gray facades, blending with snippets of shouting, laughter, dogs barking, a couple in a nearby tent having sex. The 25-year-old travel agent who owned the tent I was staying in had taken the bus from the city of Vinnytsia, a few hours to the southwest, with some friends. The group included a medical student and a woman in her third trimester of pregnancy.
“We wanted to see history happen,” the tent owner told me. The pregnant woman interjected: “But we didn’t come until we knew it was safe—until other people would be here.”
In the former Soviet Union before social media, there was a calculus to demonstrating. If you wanted to demonstrate against the regime, and you didn’t want to get arrested, you had to wait until enough demonstrators showed up to ensure that the riot police wouldn’t be able to arrest them all.
In other words, you had to wait for the people who were willing to get arrested. But since there weren’t many people willing to get arrested, and since it didn’t take long to arrest those who were, it was nearly impossible to achieve a critical mass. That was what made the Orange Revolution special: The demonstrators attained critical mass.
In Silicon Valley, 17 years later, another kind of revolution is taking shape. A handful of founders and CEOs—Brian Armstrong of Coinbase, Jason Fried of Basecamp, Shopify’s Tobias Lütke, Medium’s Ev Williams—have said the unsayable. In the face of shop-floor social-justice activism, they’ve decided, business owners should resolve to stick to business.
No hashtag coders. No message-board threads about anti-racism or neo-pronouns. No open letters meant to get someone fired for a decade-old tweet. No politics. As Armstrong put it in his famous (or infamous) September 27th, 2020 blog post, business should be “mission focused.” A software developer explained that the conciliatory approach has become too costly: “The Slack shit, the company-wide emails, it definitely spills out into real life, and it’s a huge productivity drag.”
In October, a pseudonymous group inspired by Coinbase’s Brian Armstrong came together under the banner “Mission Protocol,” with the aim of getting other companies to start “putting aside activities and conversations” outside the scope of their professional missions. (“Mission focus doesn’t mean being apolitical,” they note. “It means being political about the mission. This mission is what you came together to accomplish, and this mission is what you’re fighting for in your work on the project.”) Paul Graham, a famed venture capitalist and “hacker philosopher,” tweeted his support to 1.3 million followers. Melia Russell, who covers the startup beat for Business Insider, noted that startups were jumping into the Mission Protocol threads “with a hell yes.”
— Paul Graham (@paulg) September 28, 2020
Some founders, venture capitalists, and angel investors are now refusing to speak with legacy-media journalists who infuse their reporting with a social-justice slant. “What’s the point [of talking to reporters]?” a developer said. “They hate us, and we think they know nothing about the way the world works outside their woke, east-coast bubble.” Instead, mission-focused players are embracing alternatives such as Clubhouse and Substack. A software developer, Slava Akhmechet, is building a social-media platform (now in its beta phase) that grants influencers anonymity, with an eye toward encouraging the kind of candid conversation that is mostly verboten on, say, Twitter or Instagram. And then there’s the promise of blockchain—still in its infancy—and “decentralized media,” as Balaji Srinivasan, Coinbase’s former chief technology officer, calls it.
This Silicon Valley movement overlaps with a growing cadre of politically diverse writers and podcasters—such as Glenn Greenwald, James Poulos, Alex Kaschuta, and Aimee Terese—collectively creating an opening for a more incisive, wider-ranging conversation about technology, politics, and America itself. Default Friend, an After the Orgy podcast co-host and pseudonymous Substacker whose newsletter focuses on the Bay Area, says “this new group is like, ‘Okay, the wokeness thing definitely isn’t right. There must be some third way.’ They’re agreed on what they oppose.”
But the forces of counterrevolution are strong. Last week, Snowflake CEO Frank Slootman went on Bloomberg Television to endorse a “moderated” approach to diversity that doesn’t “override merit” or reflect a climate of “hysteria” and “outrage.” “From my own experience talking to many CEOs, all the names that you know, privately, we are of the same mind,” he added. But as Slootman found out, there’s still a big difference between what you’re allowed to say privately and what you’re allowed to say in public: Following howls of outrage at his pro-merit remarks, he was forced to issue an apology.
For these CEOs, the problem isn’t just the media and external critics: The wokeness is coming from inside the building. At dinner parties, they ask each other the same question: How do we keep woke activists off the payroll? “It’s the first thing they want to talk about these days,” a vice president at a venture-capital shop told me. “It’s the crazy, activist, political stuff. I’ve not met a founder who doesn’t think it’s a problem. There’s a state of what the fuck?”
To twenty-somethings steeped in critical race theory, the idea that a business should focus solely on its core product and generating shareholder value is unacceptable. “@coinbase choose to intentionally use the tech bro racist rule book,” tweeted Leslie Miley, the Obama Foundation’s former chief technology officer. “Let’s be clear, they knew they had issues and have chosen to ride it out rather than confront #DiversityandInclusion #DiversityInTech @brianarmstrong.” Basecamp was deluged with tweets about its supposed climate of “racism,” “fascism,” and general “fuckery.” Needless to say, the New York Times gave the new Coinbase policy a negative spin, as did the Verge, boing boing, and the various other media sites that have made it their mission to “hold accountable” CEOs whose professed values run afoul of the identitarian Left. As workplaces, these outlets are modelling the exact problem that Mission Protocol was designed to solve.
@coinbase choose to intentionally use the tech bro racist rule book instead of engaging with resources like @projectinclude let’s be clear, they knew they had issues and have chosen to ride it out rather than confront #DiversityandInclusion #DiversityInTech @brian_armstrong pic.twitter.com/S36Zx6xqYj
— Leslie Miley (@shaft) November 27, 2020
Lurking beneath all this is a deeper debate about the purpose of business. In 1970, the New York Times published an essay by Milton Friedman titled A Friedman doctrine—The Social Responsibility Of Business Is to Increase Its Profits. As Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote in September, on the occasion of the article’s 50th anniversary, many corporations have abandoned that view (at least for public consumption). In 2019, he noted, the Business Roundtable changed its Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation: “What once had been an organizing philosophy heavily influenced by Mr. Friedman’s focus on profits for shareholders has since been replaced with one that espouses ‘a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders’—not just shareholders but employees, suppliers, customers and affected communities. This move was seen as a tipping point for corporate governance by some observers and a cynical public relations ploy by others.”
(While it is now the progressive Left that is demanding that corporations embrace the campaign against systemic racism, it’s important to remember that right-wing populists—Ross Perot, Patrick Buchanan, and, to an extent, Donald Trump—have also insisted that corporations subordinate profit seeking to their own preferred “stakeholders.” Politically speaking, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street came from opposite sides of the political spectrum, but they were united by their suspicion of amoral corporate power.)
This shift toward a stakeholder-centric capitalism has opened the floodgates to all species of wokery in the workplace—prompting founders and CEOs to call for a return to business qua business. These entrepreneurs have always understood what so many progressives seem incapable of processing: building products that other people will buy requires not only hard work, talent, and a spirit of innovation, but also monomaniacal focus. As the Mission Protocol site bluntly states, “Mission focus is required to achieve difficult goals: It’s hard to build something sustainable and truly excellent if the project is frequently distracted by issues or events peripheral to the mission.”
Yes, there are companies that can fritter away resources on expensive diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. But these tend to be big, blue-chip multinationals that can factor these programs in as de facto marketing expenses. Among start-ups, that approach isn’t possible.
True, wokeness has become the in-house creed at Apple and Google. But, as any number of engineers have pointed out, these are no longer run by their founders, but rather by teams of professional executives with little, if any, emotional connection to their founding corporate subcultures. Moreover, they are sitting on market positions and brand equity that allow them to placate coders who prefer consciousness raising sessions to actual coding.
These are the cozy, cash-soaked environments that journalists have come to treat as Silicon Valley’s baseline. But the crypto space, they’ve discovered, operates on a leaner, more libertarian, and more explicitly profit-driven basis. The nature of the product, which runs up against old banking practices that have been around for centuries, ensures an anti-establishment ethos. And many of the owners who are most inclined to speak their minds are foreign-born figures. They didn’t come to America to please reporters at the Times or get corrected on their pronoun usage by people half their age. They came to build the future and make money in the process.
“It’s all about the culture, from the start, from before you’re growing,” is how a software developer explained the atmosphere at Cloud Kitchens, a novel food-delivery startup. “All Cloud Kitchens’ guys are immigrants or Midwest guys. They’re totally inoculated from the wokeness, and their leadership is completely anti-woke—very visibly so. They just don’t care. They only care about one thing. I think that’s the future.”
That future won’t materialize until enough revolutionaries are in the tent. Until we achieve critical mass. That is happening, however glacially. And it’s only a matter of time until we have the numbers necessary to bust out into the public square.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that a group of Coinbase engineers came together under the banner of “Mission Protocol.” This has been amended to reflect the fact it was a pseudonymous group. Quillette regrets the error.
Peter Savodnik is a journalist in Los Angeles. He writes for Vanity Fair, Tablet, the Guardian and other venues. He can be found on Twitter at @petersavodnik.
Featured image: Shopify’s Tobias Lütke (left) Basecamp’s Jason Fried (right)