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Keeping It Elite: When Movement Leaders Turn Heel

Photo credit: AEW Music

In times of difficulty, the idealism of social and cultural movements often collides with the realities of a capitalist society, which can cause leaders to abandon their values while fighting for the future of the movements they built. The story of Matthew and Nicholas Jackson can be seen as a case study in this phenomenon. These articles are an analysis of social issues through the lens of kayfabe. Read the prior installment of Keeping It Elite here

I have hypothesized that it is a very typical pattern for leaders in alternative cultures when pressed by crisis and criticism to resort to very rudimentary, blunt and unnecessary “crackdowns” to prove their seriousness as leaders. As I explained in a prior article, this is sometimes done for the purpose of dealing with the potential legal and reputational fall out of a crisis, but it is also done against the pressures of capitalism, needing to make a profit to keep the bills paid and out of a need to prove that yourself as living up to the standard of the dominant culture, fearing the consequences of not being accepted by the public or institutional powers. Individuals who believe in creating a different future that operates by a new set of rules are often seen as immature or irresponsible, hence those who feel that criticism coming on will attempt to be ostentatiously serious to rebut it. In the Young Bucks’ case, insisting on being called Matthew and Nicholas Jackson and showing up in suits (when they had generally not done so in the past) are the first signs of ostentatious seriousness, which was soon followed by crackdowns towards staff with fines for petty offenses. Now, adopting a level of professionalism and proper business acumen is a good thing to show that a movement should be taken seriously and making a great first impression in an important situation can really make a big difference. The problem arises when it is accompanied by an authoritarian attitude betraying core values. Abrupt changes in favor of a “leaner” business model with a more “serious,” profitable approach are also common, taking away unprofitable niceties, “fun,” and various perks. Here, this can be symbolized by the end of Being The Elite in November, which thankfully transitioned to Being The Dark Order. More significantly, as we have seen far too often lately, recessions and other adverse macroeconomic situations tend to result in organizations throwing their values out the window en masse just as easily as they throw workers out of jobs, with DEI and ESG efforts seeing significant cuts, even though both DEI and ESG are proven to improve financial performance. 

The fear of losing the thing that you’ve worked your entire life for, as the Bucks stated in their return interview they were experiencing, leads to a frantic response that seeks dominance and control, and forgets about the underlying values and principles that the leader fought for in the first place. Here it is not a matter of gaining the world, and losing your soul, if you will, as it is a matter of losing your soul in order to hold onto the piece of the world that you gained. This is not a case of betraying the entirety of your ideas for the sake of success. In fact, in that same interview, Messrs. Jackson seemed more committed than ever to the things that made AEW unique, but fear came in and turned this desire into something else. This fear and tenacity to maintain a legacy is both understandable and laudable, but reactionary actions often are more destructive than helpful, leading to frayed relationships like that between the Jacksons’, Darby Allin (whom they tried to recruit to a trio the week before), and Sting. I firmly believe a strategy that incorporates, not betrays, the unique ideals that got you to this point while improving identified issues by integrating evidence-based management practices in a culturally competent manner, acknowledging the native knowledge of the community, is more effective and sustainable. 

“This place used to be somewhere but they sold it out from under us, our voices all ignored.” - Rise Against

Alternative cultures frequently adopt the business ideas of dominant cultures as a means of survival, and as a means of seeking legitimacy in the face of private equity and corporate consultants trying to find ways to squeeze profit out of their scenes. Because if you can’t beat them, then why not join them, I guess? And if you’re experiencing difficulties, you may think “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing while expecting different results, right?” This can be seen with financially successful skateboarders and punk rockers, who preach hustle culture, “grindset,” and generally “winning” capitalism, while often leaving behind the communitarian ideas of the culture that point out and seek to remedy the flaws of capitalism out of their narratives. This blending of communitarian and individualistic ideas that are the magic of these cultures is a very tenuous balance that needs to be carefully preserved. Doing so requires a level of skill, nuance, and believing in the legitimacy of the culture’s native ideas, while using the systems of society to advance the goals of the movement and achieve financial success while leading using a values-based approach. And in fact, the success of AEW and The Elite has been an excellent exemplar of achieving this type of success. In the first installment of this series, I articulated a framework inspired by the Bucks’ philosophies and the Stand Tall, Don’t Back Down, and Be Elite episode of Being The Elite of using your values and unique identity to achieve success amidst crisis. So it most certainly is possible, but this is not obvious when under pressure, and the ship has clearly sailed for this type of approach with the Jacksons’ right now. 

Oftentimes a lack of knowledge combined with reactionary thinking results in a movement leader wielding the iron rod (or baseball bats, if you will) of capitalism and authoritarianism in a manner more brutal than conventional leaders even. This is how a leftist Youtuber can allegedly run a more abusive workplace than even some companies that are hyper-capitalistic and militantly anti-union, but have competent Legal & HR teams. Having individuals and groups be coerced or tricked into enforcing the ideals of the dominant class, especially at a time of desperation, bypassing their typical conscience, is a hallmark of late stage capitalism. I have termed this phenomenon the “Economic Police State.” In real life, we will often see desperate workers snitching on other workers, even when organizing is in all their best interest. Here, on social media, Brandon Cutler stated the Jacksons were “devastated” by what they did to Sting and Allin, claiming a “reliable source noted” that “EVPs sometimes have to make tough business decisions so others don’t have to.” Assuming the aforementioned is at least partially genuine (and I may be interpreting their actions more generously than others would), the fact that the Jacksons showed any remorse for attacking Sting and Darby reflects that they may realize deep down in their souls that this action betrays their values, but they feel that economic realities leave them with no choice but to engage in such brutality. And in fact, their new entrance theme is called "You Leave Us No Choice."

If the ideas and identity of your alternative culture are incorporated into the desperation and capitalism fueled expressions being used to “save” the situation, they are in the most surface level manner possible, with the aesthetics and maybe some slight overture to their roots, and can oftentimes be an inaccurate portrayal of them. You’ll have punk rockers saying that the DIY ethos and/or other aspects of the culture helped them be great entrepreneurs, and “optimization experts” crediting the physical and mental discipline of skaters in the context of high-stress business situations and “flow state programs” for tech bros. Now, these ideas and tools of self-improvement do have value to individuals and can even be immensely helpful to social movements, helping to create a mentality that is less susceptible to some of the fear I have discussed here. It’s the reductionism and lack of class consciousness that is the problem, not the striving for ideal performance. You’ll also see downstream effects of the dilution of a culture by mass commercialization, such as people who believe punk is just about “freedom,” hence playing Rage Against the Machine at pro-Trump protests and getting upset when Green Day says they are “not a part of the MAGA agenda.” Now, spreading the message of your community behind your core followers is absolutely imperative and some level of “selling out” is inevitable, but doing so in a way that maintains your autonomy and vision is key, like Green Day and RATM have done successfully, hence why they are able to readily rebut these disgruntled fans. Here, the Jacksons have themselves, unprompted, reduced and contorted their “Killing The Business” philosophy of pushing out the old way of doing pro wrestling to justify brutally attacking Sting, whom Matthew Jackson just a couple weeks prior called a "role model employee," merely because he is an esteemed veteran of the industry. 

“It’s not just about what happens in this ring, it’s about…what happens when you go back through that curtain, those small, quiet moments when you think no one’s watching, that’s what makes a champion.” - Adam Page 

Fellow Elite member “Hangman” Adam Page’s Workers’ Rights promo touched on this very contradiction in those who once were vanguards of a movement but have drifted into the ways dominant ideology because it was “better for business,” and his feud with Swerve Strickland is centered around the idea that simply earning your spot through superior firepower doesn’t make you a leader. In the former, Hangman’s statements could have just as easily been applied to a union-busting “punk rock entrepreneur” who espoused socialist causes, but when his own employees came knocking to organize, they were given the cold shoulder. And because of the kinds of foibles of leaders discussed herein, worker power in an organization is important to the preservation of its values, as it can serve as a check on the vacillations of management. In the latter, Swerve is the archetypal victim of hustle culture narratives that push callous indifference toward others and deviance for the sake of gain, while its peddlers take advantage of their victims (maybe for money to buy weed, as Hangman hilariously said about Prince Nana), and Hangman tries to be the positive influence that leads him on a path towards a form of strength that is led by character and sportsmanship. 

"Money's good but dignity is better." - Darby Allin

The Bucks’ heel runs generally lean into showing the opposite of their Killing The Business approach. Holding a mirror up to the wrestling business, and to society itself is a long-standing theme of The Elite’s mode of storytelling and is just as valid of a form of practicing their ideal. Creating leaders that don’t have to be reactionary in the face of crisis because they have that interdisciplinary intellectual foundation to know how native knowledge and the principles that got your movement to the place it is at now can be combined with careful application of appropriate business principles, along with giving workers enough of a voice to push the organization towards doing the right thing when management won’t, is essential. Here in this story, we are seeing a dramatization of what happens when such is not done. However, there is always hope as long as someone is willing to shine the light of a movement’s authentic values and is empowered to do so, to Be Elite in the gap, so to speak. During The Bucks’ absence, I ascribed this characteristic to many in the AEW locker room, including “Daddy Magic” Matt Menard and “Cool Hand” Angelo Parker, but The Dark Order has long been the leader in occupying this type of role. In the first episode of Being The Dark Order, Evil Uno made a powerful statement that shares what workers with power who care can do to keep a good movement going. “This whole thing started as something nobody cared about, nobody thought was going to become a huge thing, and it did, because it had heart and soul at the base of it…It doesn’t matter if the people…who started this thing have walked away and don’t care, because we care,” Uno exhorted. 

In this feud, the combination of Darby Allin, who comes from skateboarding’s longstanding tradition of respectful, self-governing, cooperative community with creative freedom and has said that he is “AEW for life, until death,” and Sting, a well-respected Icon of professional wrestling who was even complimented by the Jacksons, are ideally suited to serve as a corrective force. Having great people like Darby and Sting who care about an organization’s values and are able to step in as vanguards is not a matter of happenstance, but of intentionality in including workers in the decision-making process and not resorting to repressive crackdowns. Matthew and Nicholas Jackson have chosen to tell a marvelous story that is just as important to Changing The World as any, and we should take heed to the message in the narrative around the build to Revolution, if we want to see revolution anywhere in society. 

Greyson Peltier is the host of The Fixerpunk Podcast, a podcast seeking to Bridge The Divide Between Personal and Social Change, a communications consultant specializing in social impact and political advocacy, and founder of consulting firm Off Speed Solutions. Peltier holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Southern California with honors, A.A. degrees in Business Administration, Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Communications from Coastline College with honors, and has been featured in media outlets like Vice, ESPN Radio KLAA, USA Radio Network, Sportskeeda, and Street Fight Radio.

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This content is for entertainment and general informational purposes only, and does not reflect the official position of any persons or organizations referenced. We do not warrant or guarantee the accuracy of the information herein. This is not professional advice of any sort. The viewer should not rely solely upon this article and consult a competent professional before deciding to follow any course of action.  


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