Conservative commentator Steven Crowder used to work for Glenn Beck’s company, The Blaze. Late last year, before The Blaze let him go, he was in negotiations to switch over to one of their competitors — Ben Shapiro and Jeremy Boreing’s the Daily Wire.
Last week, Crowder released a video denouncing the terms the Daily Wire had offered him as a “slave contract.” Boreing hit back with a long response going through the details of the offer. Among other things, he revealed that the “slave contract” would have given Crowder $50 million over four years. Crowder, Boreing revealed, wanted more than twice that figure.
The feud escalated from there, with Crowder gleefully publicizing a phone conversation he’d secretly recorded with Boreing a week before, and Shapiro responding with a long Twitter thread, and… well… you get the idea.
The whole sordid incident speaks volumes about the Right. There’s a striking disconnect between the way these guys talk about their own employment contracts and their complete indifference to the complaints of ordinary workers. And nothing about the way this has played out makes any sense until you realize that the whole ecosystem of right-wing media is swimming in billionaire cash.
“Slave Contracts” for Thee but Not for Me
On its face, there’s something absurd about the phrase “slave contracts.” Contracts are things you sign when you’re a free citizen who gets to decide whether to accept or reject a particular job offer. It’s not like literal slaves ended up in chains because they didn’t read over the proposed language in their employment contracts carefully enough.
But it’s worth pausing to acknowledge that Crowder is hardly breaking new ground in making this kind of comparison. One of Karl Marx’s core contentions in Capital is that even though capitalist employment contracts take the form of voluntary agreements between legally equal parties, they still involve relations of power and domination that can be meaningfully compared to earlier and more naked systems of control like slavery and feudalism.
Even if you accept Marx’s argument, you might still think that calling any legally voluntary employment contract a “slave contract” involves an unhelpful amount of hyperbole. And it might seem particularly absurd given the amount of money that the Daily Wire was offering Crowder.
What interests me, though, is that Crowder’s complaint and the Daily Wire’s response both take for granted a point that all these guys are normally at pains to miss. Crowder thought the Daily Wire’s offer was outrageously unfair. Boreing and Shapiro defended it as reasonable and generous. But everyone concerned seems to have forgotten that, as good laissez-faire ideologues, they were supposed to deny the very possibility of workers being screwed over by employment contracts. Isn’t any contract both parties assent to supposed to be “mutually beneficial” — power imbalances be damned?
None of these people support raising the minimum wage to help low-wage workers who struggle to afford rent and groceries every month. Nor do they want to change labor laws to make it easier for workers to organize labor unions so they can bargain collectively and get a better deal. None of that’s supposed to be necessary, because individual workers will get what they’re worth in a free market.
According to Boreing, contract negotiations initially fell apart because Crowder wanted $30 million a year instead of the $12.5 million a year he’d been offered. Crowder tells a different story, emphasizing his objection to a clause whereby his pay would have been docked if something he said on air led to one of the big platforms like YouTube or Spotify demonetizing his content.
He brandishes this clause as evidence that “Big Con” is in bed with “Big Tech” — that, in other words, conservative media companies like the Daily Wire act as enforcers for censorship decisions by tech companies. According to Crowder, it was never really about the money. It was about a principled commitment to free speech.
For the record, I strongly suspect that Boreing is the one telling the truth about this part. Realistically, it’s far easier to imagine negotiations stalling because the parties were far apart on the money than because of just about any other element of the offer. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that Crowder is telling the truth and his main objection was about the demonetization clause.
Fine. So why isn’t Crowder demanding that ordinary workers get paid sick leave? If it’s outrageous — in fact, so outrageous it can be compared to slavery — for him to lose income during periods when he isn’t generating revenue for his employer, why doesn’t the same principle apply to everyone else?
Must Be Nice
Crowder insists that the issue is “independence.” But as Boreing pointed out in his response video, Steven Crowder has never been “independent.”
Steven, the whole time I’ve known him, has worked for someone else. He was paid by PJTV, when I met him, which was owned by a billionaire at the time. Then he was paid by CRTV for a number of years, which was owned by a billionaire at the time. Then he worked for The Blaze, which was subsidized by a billionaire.
In fact, Boreing goes on to point out, Crowder doesn’t even “know for a fact” if his show was profitable because those companies didn’t share all the relevant numbers with him.
That last point is absolutely crucial — and Boreing may be revealing more than he realizes. Because if Steven Crowder doesn’t know if Crowder was actually generating net revenue for his previous employers, Jeremy Boreing certainly doesn’t know. And yet he was willing to blow $50 million of his company’s money on Crowder.
The only way that makes sense is if the Daily Wire is drowning in money from wealthy donors — who are promoting the company not because they’re confident they’ll get a good rate of return on their investment but because they like the relentlessly anti-tax, anti-worker, and pro-billionaire message all the hosts at the Daily Wire promote.
As everyone involved seems to recognize, Crowder’s own message would have been a perfect fit. Presumably his play at this point is to start his own competitor to the Daily Wire and The Blaze. If it works out for him, it’s going to be because he lines up his own billionaire backers.
The willingness of some of the wealthiest people in our society to put a thumb on the scale of political discourse by funding the right-wing noise machine has profound political consequences. The idea of Jacobin, for example, ever being able to offer anyone $1 million a year, never mind $12.5, is… well, let’s just say it would be hard to imagine.
And the Right needs that asymmetry to have a fighting chance of success. They’re promoting a set of ideas that go against the preferences and interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m under no illusions that a majority of Americans currently agree with all of my long-term political goals. But polling consistently shows that most of them support things like national health care, a higher minimum wage, a less interventionist foreign policy, and stronger labor unions — all of which would be at least one hell of a good start.
The task of the Crowders and Shapiros and Boreings of the world is to convince people that they shouldn’t have any of these things. That’s not an easy job. They need all the billionaire help they can get.