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Elon Musk is not your friend

By: 
Kevin Taghabon

August 18, 2018

One of the most pernicious falsehoods that infects advanced capitalist countries is that great men are the drivers of historical change. The bizarre right wing flailing about the removal of John A. MacDonald’s statue in Victoria fits the bill perfectly. It is not in the interest of states to educate people as to the power of mass movements—the real agents of historical change. Instead they propagate the great man myth.

The media, popular culture, and our education system are all framed the same way. A billionaire superhero routinely saves a city (or a planet) wearing socially acceptable tailor-made military-grade costumes. Drake “put Toronto on the map”, whatever that means besides erasing generations of musicians. The ugly phrase “Founding Fathers” resonates an inch deep and a continent wide. Trump “ruined” America. These are all falsehoods, but they are peddled nonetheless. Enter Elon Musk.

Is Elon Musk Iron Man?

No. Born Pretoria, a rich whites-only town of South Africa during Apartheid, Musk was raised primarily by his father, Errol Musk, whom Elon describes as “a terrible human being...he will plan evil”. Musk Sr. made his money “consulting and developing properties” before retiring. Elon attended elite boarding schools and graduated from an all-white high school. Musk’s mother was a famous TV star, and both of his siblings are also very wealthy in their own careers today. Musk notably has little affection for his home country, while many South Africans proudly claim him.

Despite Tony Stark-esque stunts to the opposite, Elon Musk’s primary concern is the creation and reproduction of his own wealth. This is not a character defect of Musk, but a feature of our economic system. Musk and his ilk are the products of years of concentrated wealth funnelling toward a single mouth. Couple this with obedience from staff across multiple companies and an ever-credulous media (“he pauses while a movie’s worth of images seem to flicker through his mind”) and you have the recipe for a loud billionaire who drinks his own Kool Aid.

What has Musk done to accrue such a magnificent funnel? Essentially, he has leapfrogged from one tech startup to another with bags of cash between episodes. The $1.5 billion sale of PayPal to eBay (founded as X.com) was used to fund his later ventures, Tesla and SpaceX. This is a typical story for Silicon Valley, particularly for entities like Facebook and Amazon which spend all day talking about “competition” and “networking” while gobbling up other companies and trending towards monopoly.

Musk shares this instinct, too. The automobile industry serves as one of the most all-encompassing examples of 20th century capitalism. It is no surprise that he sees this as a central avenue to wealth. The stated intention of Tesla’s proposed $35,000 electric car is to force out other car manufacturers or get them to switch to electric. The hand of the market plays its infamous role here to Musk’s approval. Presumably, companies who do not convert to electric vehicles will die off, and Tesla will take over their share of the market.

While Musk is first and foremost a salesman, Tesla does not seem interested in pivoting towards being the “good guy” car company any time soon. Musk has engaged in anti-union coercion at Tesla this spring, so much so that US Congressman Keith Ellison had to publicly tell Musk to stop threatening workers during a union drive. This is bad for workers at Tesla, and it was likely illegal. Musk has simultaneously said that workers could unionize immediately if they wanted to, and that their stock options would be revoked if they did so.

Mass profit instead of mass transit

Musk has downplayed the sometimes mortal dangers of self-driving cars to investors and the public. In fairness, many of the problems are technological. In time, those will be perfected. What cannot be researched into perfection is ethics. Mercedes Benz confirmed last year that it will prioritize the life of the driver over anyone outside the vehicle in an emergency situation. No one is likely to buy a self-driving car that doesn’t make this decision, creating a market where all vehicles behave this way.

Other cars will pull over automatically for the police. The algorithms that govern these vehicles’ decisions are not in the hands of the humans involved. As Sam Kriss writes in Current Affairs, “[w]ithout any ability to assume manual control of the car at moments of high significance, passengers in self-driving cars will also be passive subjects of a manufacturer’s pre-programmed ethical determinations. In Elon Musk’s vision of a self-driving future, fewer people might die, but the people who do will die because he ordained it.”

Like other mega-rich self-anointed mass transit experts, Musk believes that a great way to move people across busy cities is to have them all—individually—travel around in automated pods instead of buses and trains. Musk forgets to mention how handsomely he would profit from this.

The reactionary fear of everyone outside the proverbial gated community grows strong in Musk. After calling an actual public transit expert an “idiot” Musk said using public transit is, “like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer. . . that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.” This concern trolling would be amusing if it wasn’t relevant to the fact that there are roughly 40,000 vehicle-related fatalities a year in North America, with roughly a third involving cyclists and pedestrians. Musk’s idea of having everyone in their own metal ship zooming around town with “me first” programmed into it would be disastrous.

The Boring Company—Musk’s cheekily named mass transport company—is charged with implementing his idea. As it stands, there has been little in the way of proof-of-concept beyond elevators lowering Tesla cars into Musk’s tunnel. How this would translate in to a network of high-speed tubes moving vehicles, packages, and people around a society is entirely unclear, especially considering that Musk does not seem to be doing so well in the transportation business.

The obvious rebuttal to this could come from anyone who has ever spent rush hour on a highway. “Where did all these people come from? This place is a parking lot.” Ironically, Musk’s idea for a Hyperlooped tube society came after being stuck in Los Angeles’ gridlock traffic. “This needs more vehicles,” he somehow concluded. Not to mention that Musk is never going to champion the massive tax increases on wealth that would be needed to provide the infrastructure and vehicles to the public. Private purchasers will never accrue at a rate high enough to build a city around. Musk’s plans have been found to be half-baked at best.

But it doesn’t matter, it’s a fantasy. A colourful image of a techno-utopian future in which millions more vehicles are slotting effortlessly through tubes and tunnels in our urban centers. Every happy citizen has their own private space where they can be isolated from their apparently terrifying co-travelers. One can see the image without having to explain any of it.

Tesla sues Ontario: green capitalism won’t save us

Perhaps Musk’s disdain for public transit can be hand-waved away. Perhaps his recent comments were not a Freudian slip. His actions are not. On August 10 Tesla filed a lawsuit against the government of Ontario after newly-elected PC Premier Doug Ford cancelled the green vehicle rebate program. While Ford’s anti-environment stance should be admonished, the solution to these types of problems cannot sit wishing for benevolent billionaires to step in and act.

Further, it could set the expectation that companies can loot the public purse if they can make a case that they are being “singled out” after a change in government, as Tesla is doing. Fighting climate change requires resources to fund a just transition. Wasting it because of a court battle with a “green” car company in court is absurd. It is also a lesson in social progress. Different parties can rip up each others’ policies. The task is for social movements to push policies that if enacted are so popular that they dare not be dismantled by the following government (e.g. healthcare).

One of the primary things that Tesla prides itself on is the highly automated production line, alongside the high ratio of parts made in-house. This fit wonderfully inside Musk’s fantasies of divine technology, but it in fact has meant a bottleneck for the car company as it cannot produce and deliver vehicles fast enough. When asked about “the robots” in April on CBS Musk admitted that they actually slowed things down. “Yes, they did….We had this crazy, complex network of conveyor belts….And it was not working, so we got rid of that whole thing.” He also said that their original promises of 5,000 units per week of the do-or-die Tesla Model 3 was lowered to 2,000. Tesla is also in dire financial straits despite Musk’s public optimism. It is possible that an imperiled Tesla saw an opportunity in Ontario’s green vehicle rebate cancellation and is swinging for the fences.

Musk’s contributions to environmentalism are in fact entirely negligible. In May of 2016 he called for a “revolt” against the fossil fuel industry, which would have the nice side benefit of boosting Tesla’s fortunes. But he couldn’t even commit to this. Once Donald Trump was elected, inaugurating the most climate-hostile administration in a generation, Musk accepted an invite to a pre-inauguration forum with Trump. Capital is as capital does.

Colonizing space

Musk takes more cues from the auto industry, if metaphorically. Car companies regularly create a top-of-the-line “halo car” to boost sales across their product lines, vehicles like the Dodge Viper or Audi R8. One can argue that this is the function of SpaceX and Musk’s other fantastical space colonization schemes.

In the 1960s NASA could make the argument in terms of culture, military, and research that the US needed to land on the moon. Fifty years later, Musk’s SpaceX is subsidized by the American government through NASA, with all profits staying with SpaceX. As the company’s survival depends on the American government, one can expect the green anti-Trump rhetoric to be muted from Musk until Trump is no longer able to crush one of his companies with a declaration on Twitter.

It is also, frankly, childlike for a grown man whose primary ambition is to save humanity to think colonizing space is a good project to take up in the early 21st century. Our planet is accelerating towards climate collapse, with severe flooding and forest fires becoming far too common. Thousands of nuclear weapons are at the hands of some of the most irresponsible men in history while world superpowers are playing proxy wars out in the Middle East.

Our society is more unequal than it has been in over a century. Most advanced states, stuck in neoliberal caretaker status, have slowly decaying infrastructure and healthcare systems. Yet, we will not see Musk advocating for nuclear disarmament in Congress or building Hyperloops in Baghdad. Even if his grandchildren claim the land and plant a SpaceX flag on Mars 50 years from now, if Earth cooks life to a crisp in the meantime, what good did it do humanity?

Capitalism’s demagogues

Musk and Tesla are far from unique. It is entirely possible that like many of his compatriots, he craves attention more than anything else. Musk crassly inserted himself into the Thai cave rescue story by offering tiny submarines to help—creating a great opportunity to declare to the world, “hey look! I made tiny submarines!” In his white knight manner he tweeted that his engineers were flying over to help Thai authorities. The rescue was over before the stunt was.

Musk, incredibly, claims he is a socialist. This led recently to an embarrassing exchange with Black Socialists of America (an organization aiming to educate Americans about socialism) on Twitter. Musk betrayed his colossal misunderstanding of the most basic elements of socialism. He also claimed Karl Marx was actually a capitalist because he “wrote a book about it”.

While Musk’s personal boy-scout grifter style is particularly obnoxious to those familiar with his companies and practices, he is not alone. Silicon Valley tech billionaires with limitless hubris abound. Peter Thiel infamously believes that injecting yourself with the blood of teenagers can elongate your lifespan, and that death is an ideological position that can be defeated. Human Rights Campaign’s 2017 Equality Award winner, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, now the richest person on the planet with over $140 billion, has employees who live on food stamps, have to wear tracking bracelets, and limit bathroom breaks. Even turtlenecked saint Steve Jobs’ image is shattered when we recall that Apple is a monopoly-hungry empire built on the grinding labour of Chinese workers. For all the wealth they command, they are quite fallible. As of this writing Musk himself is in hot water, with shares plummeting while the SEC investigates his scheme to take the company private at $420 per share.

Capitalism births shiny demagogues like Musk, Thiel, Trump, and countless others. While they are powerful actors in our culture and in their fiefdoms of the economy, the root of the problem is the centuries-long disaster of global capitalism. Our opposition to its figureheads must be systemic and impersonal.

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