Heralded by some as a genius, a strategic entrepreneur, a revolutionary disrupter, the man at the cutting edge between tech and finance, Elon Musk – the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX – is the personification of the kind of rotten decay at the heart of modern capitalism.
When he appeared on Saturday Night Live on 8 May 2021, he was allowed to project his favourite public persona. He told his story as a hard-working self-made billionaire, someone who has overcome personal challenges like Aspergers to rise to the top. He appeared in sketches fooling around with the regular cast of comedians, down to earth as well as being from the wealthiest elite on the planet. His cultivated public personality portrays him as a genius first and foremost, but also flawed, capable of self-sabotage and occasional costly mistakes. This is all part of the brand, however, all part of the mystique.
He struts the stage like a prince of capitalism. For some people – some young men in particular – Elon Musk is a kind of man-god, the economic version of what Jordan Peterson represents philosophically. A Nietzschean style triumph of the will. From their perspective, given his awkward personality, Musk could have languished as a beta male (to use Peterson’s phrase) but he overcame all of that to become a tech messiah. Having conquered Earth, Musk now sets his sights on outer space with a privately-owned space exploration project to colonise Mars.
The cult of Musk is not particularly novel, every generation of capitalists produces some new figure who appears to rise from the plebeian masses to take their rightful place among the stars. Whilst the Musk family background (diamond mining in South Africa) is well known, his fans write this off as not part of the equation. Sure he had a little help, but it is Musk’s own innate talent and brilliance that built Tesla to be the most profitable car company in the world.
The problem with this meritocratic view of the world is what it leaves out. It sees capitalists as hard-working uber-mensch when in reality their wealth is created by the sweat of the company workers. All of the self-made tech giants, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Musk – they all had to build a corporation with thousands of workers to make anything happen. They may have had some original ideas or insights but the value of those ideas was only monetized by the engineers, technicians, logisticians, coders, and factory workers in China who produced the commodities for the market.
The problem with this meritocratic view of the world is what it leaves out. It sees capitalists as hard-working uber-mensch when in reality their wealth is created by the sweat of the company workers.
This is the definition of capitalism, it is mass commodity production. Musk is not an artisan craftsman in his workshop handcrafting specialist vehicles. He is the CEO of a mega-corporation, one wrapped up in politics, finance, and exploitation.
Unlike Apple, Musk is proud that his Tesla’s are made in the USA, in conditions that one worker described as “a modern-day sweatshop”. In keeping with many capitalist hotshots he is pathological, a psychopath – how could he be anything else when he is treated like a genius? He will shout at and berate factory workers and executives, randomly fire staff, and treat people with contempt if they displease him. He is a medieval king in a modern-day factory, the equivalent of beheading peasants who dared to look him in the eye.
The threat of someone like Musk is that they are pitching themselves as a kind of saviour for humanity. Tesla’s electric cars will reduce carbon dioxide levels, helping to combat climate change. If that fails then he might be able to save some of humanity by using SpaceX rockets to take them to his Mars colony. He is the personification of capitalism at the cutting edge of climate death and he is getting very rich from it. This man literally wants to privatise space.
A dangerous threat
But this projection is just that… a projection. Peel back the of Wizard of Ozmachinery and Musk is crass and combative in his delusions and ruling class prejudices. His tweets from April 2020 that the COVID pandemic was totally overblown and would pass in a couple of weeks are embarrassingly misguided. He argued on Twitter against government stimulus packages that would (in a small way) help struggling people dealing with pandemic unemployment.
When the populist right in Bolivia organised a coup to overthrow Evo Morales in 2019 many suspected that it was in part due to the countries supply of lithium reserves, necessary for the rechargeable electric batteries in cars like Tesla. Bolivia has probably 45% of the world’s supply of lithium and the government had denied foreign companies the right to come to the country and exploit the mineral reserves. After the coup, the new right-wing government contacted Tesla so that they begin securing the lithium. When someone challenged Musk on Twitter about his support for the attempted coup in Bolivia he replied: “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”
The sight of the world’s second-richest man endorsing a coup and threatening to ‘coup whoever we want’ (‘we’ presumably being the US capitalist class and the government that supports their interests) should send shivers down the spine of any democrat, let alone socialist.
Musk’s contempt for social responsibility can be seen in his corporate practices. In April he clashed with the Californian government because he said he would reopen the Tesla factory in the middle of a dangerous global pandemic. In response, he threatened to move his entire Tesla and SpaceXoperation to Texas – a state with much looser tax requirements and company regulations. Musk himself moved from California to Texas where the second richest man in the world pays no income tax.
When faced with such a megalomaniacal boss it is no surprise that Tesla employees have sought to unionise
When faced with such a megalomaniacal boss it is no surprise that Tesla employees have sought to unionise. It is here that Musk reveals his contempt for working people and their rights and how a ‘visionary’ capitalist is actually just a capitalist that doesn’t want his workers to have any independent voice or power. Union busting efforts at Tesla have ranged from offering workers free frozen yoghurt as an incentive not to join a union to the outright sacking of individuals suspected of pro-union activities. Musk himself publicly berated an employee who spoke out about problems in the factory, tweeting out to his millions of followers that the worker was a ‘union plant’. Management have leveraged against the union by offering to look into safety concerns as long as the workers didn’t form a union. One employee told a journalist “Pro-union people are generally fired for made-up reasons. There’s a culture of fear because if you don’t comply, you will be fired.”
Whilst Musk is living it large as a billionaire his employees who make Tesla cars are living in a culture of fear. It is a story as old as capitalism.
Tesla tells us another story about the role of finance capital. The truth is that Tesla operated for many years without turning any profit. It was sustained by investors on the promise of future profits being generated at some point. This is where Musk comes in as a consummate showman. He needs to grease the wheels of finance to keep money coming in with the hope that one day Tesla will be able to make money.
Tesla did actually turn a profit in 2020, but not from selling cars. It made $1.6bn that year because in several states across the US car companies have to sell a certain number of electric cars. If they do not then they can pay another company that does sell electric cars regulatory credits. This is much the same system as the cap and trade model used by the energy companies. You can only pollute so much but if you exceed it that is fine, you just need to pay credits to another energy company that did meet its pollution targets, effectively buying the right to pollute. To be clear – Tesla made a profit because other companies paid it so they could keep polluting.
A post-capitalist future
There is a tendency from some on the left to be quite enamoured with Musk’s own spin on his company and what it is capable of. Could we just nationalise Tesla and use that amazing tech for untrammeled social good instead of for private gain?
Whilst Tesla has made serious advances in electrical car tech and the necessary batteries needed for them to work, we have to be a little more careful than arguing to “Nationalise Elon Musk but under workers control”. A future where we survive as a species on this planet will involve more sustainable forms of transport including electric cars but we will also have to look at a completely different vision of our cities, of transport infrastructure, of work itself. Our future cannot be saved by geniuses but through collective social effort. Will some of the Tesla tech feature in a post-capitalist green socialist economy? Probably it will. But for such a future to even be a possibility we need to tear down the cult of Musk, the dystopian vision of privatised space travel or violent coups to secure valuable ‘green tech’ resources.
We also need to be clear about what kind of revolutionary political movement needs to be built. Young children are being taught how to code in dilapidated inner-city schools in a hopeless prayer that there will be some well-paid jobs for them in 20 years’ time. Meanwhile, Musk is already working on escaping a dying planet. We need a fundamental root and branch socialist transformation to have any hope of escaping our fate.
There is an oft-neglected second verse in the Internationale which sums up how we should consider ‘princes of capitalism’ like Elon Musk.
“No saviour from on high delivers;
No faith have we in prince or peer.
Our own right hand the chains must shiver:
Chains of hatred, greed and fear.”