Fredi Gentz writes about the dark reality behind the billionaire celebrity tech mogul
Recently Tesla’s stock rose by almost 5% per cent, pushing Musk’s net worth up to $183.8 billion. This makes the self-styled celebrity the world’s richest man, surpassing Amazon’s infamous Jeff Bezos. For Musk’s cult of free-market fanboys this simply proves his genius – a fair reward for the world’s most brilliant inventor. But what is really behind the Tesla empire? And what has Musk actually invented?
Musk’s fans treat him like a real-life Tony Stark — a swaggering playboy billionaire saving the world with his visionary tech. In reality, Musk is little more than a narcissistic con-man taking advantage of geek gullibility.
The image of Tesla and SpaceX as pillars of a new age of space travel and technological advancement is a gross exaggeration backed by massive PR campaigns. Their rare “breakthroughs” have more to do with government subsidies than visionary genius, and their enormous wealth has accumulated in the form of “the world’s most expensive pyramid scheme.” Backed by a series of so-called “public-private partnerships”, Tesla’s now massively inflated stock price says far more about their ability to tell a good story than it does about their actual track record.
Musk continually promises his revolutionary breakthroughs are never more than three or four years away while actually producing very little, an indictment of modern capitalism’s absurd reliance on speculative investment. Jeff Bezos became the world’s richest man as Amazon became the world’s biggest retailer — not in anticipation of potential sales. Musk on the other hand does little but pinkie-promise to change the game for space travel and electric cars, passing off ancient tech as his own while enjoying massive bonuses and tax breaks.
SpaceX, a company whose promises of commercial space travel leaves sci-fi nerds weak at the knees, is essentially running on Soviet tech from the 1970s. When Musk promises reusable rockets will make space travel “affordable”, he doesn’t mean for normal or even very wealthy people — in practice he envisions Mars as a gated community for elite investors, an off-world playground colony for the super-rich.
Not to say that there isn’t place for the working class in Musk’s dystopian vision: he suggests that those who can’t afford the $200,000 trip can work off their loan-debt in neo-feudal space enslavement.
And while shuttle after shuttle goes up in smoke, even exploding days before launch, Musk tells investors “data collected was valuable”. No problem for a company which has received almost £5bn in government subsidies and tax breaks.
Musk is not alone in his deranged billionaire boys’ club who want to abandon Earth and start over again in the stars: Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson also have space capitalism in their sights. But while they claim that space travel is the answer to our planet’s climate crisis, the real solution lies in the nationalisation of all the wealth, resources and scientific research their private enterprises hoard. The off-world obsession is a dark insight into the minds of Musk and his kind, who don’t want to stop expansion even if it proves fatal for the rest of us.
Tesla was founded in 2003 by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning — not Musk. Only a lawsuit allowed Musk to call himself a co-founder, a title he considered he had “earned” after millions of dollars of investment.
Tarpenning and Eberhard did not originate the idea of electric cars, but even their limited vision of a luxury version for rich consumers was not something Musk had any input in: he simply backs the horses he likes, as an investor rather than an inventor.
And Musk is a good investor, no doubt. Starting with his white-South-African family fortune, he has always had a nose for where to stick his cash and has a series of successful start-ups under his belt. Zip2 and X.com, early projects with his brother, both sold for millions. But his “genius” here was not in inventing something new, but merely repackaging and remonetising pre-existing tech. The idea that Musk is a brilliant inventor, rendering his genius as a service to humanity, is an outlandish fiction which goes to the very heart of capitalist ideology – where neither the people who design something nor those who physically make it are recognised over whoever stumps the development cash.
The rigidly stratified nature of capitalist society, where the rich hand down their wealth to their children and social mobility is a fairy tale for most, here gets a glamorous makeover: rich men are seen as visionary drivers of social and scientific progress, leading humanity into the future, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and the whole world with them, rather than as the cynical, over-privileged exploiters they really are.
While Musk’s relationship with his wealthy father was troubled, the freedom of trial and error and failure without consequence that a rich family affords cannot be understated. Along with his father’s sizable investments into his early ventures, the absolute certainty of financial safety no matter the outcome no doubt allowed Musk the freedom to develop ideas that most of his peers couldn’t afford.
Fast forward to 2010 and Tesla’s $465 million grant from the US Department of Energy which allowed its high-end cars to go into production. While Musk obsesses over sleek, Tron-esque designs, he has failed to overcome the central crux of the electric car problem – the Tesla models still run on massively inefficient batteries. The promised 500-times-stronger-mega-battery to end them all is — you guessed it — “a few years away”.
Tesla’s new Powerwall battery plans to privatise and isolate electric power generation at the household level through contested solar technology. By individualising the collective problem of transforming our energy system, the Powerall reproduces the neoliberal maxim that social change can be achieved through the buying decisions of dispersed, calculating consumers – no doubt an accurate reflection of Musk’s professed right-libertarian views.
Musk’s escapades into renewable energy have him fiending after lithium, a finite resource found predominantly in South America. Musk claimed “There is so much damn lithium on Earth it’s crazy,” implying lithium would be sourced from within the United States – instead, the US government attempted a coup in Bolivia to depose is democratically-elected President Evo Morales, finding him guilty of diverting the wealth from Bolivia’s natural resources to enrich the people of Bolivia rather than US private enterprise. When challenged, an angry Musk took to Twitter, writing “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.” Here Musk exposed the greedy and arrogant attitude of the billionaire class towards all foreign countries – if you have the misfortune of possessing valuable natural resources we want, and won’t vote to give them to us, democracy does not apply.
Elon Musk is a hype man, making billions off of work done by others, and his undeserved personality cult is not just extremely annoying but dangerous. While fanboys lavish him with adoration for his “forward-thinking entrepreneurship”, he uses his social media to spout backwards eugenicist views about “overpopulation by dumb people”. Employees of his shiny tech empire endure immense stress, shocking conditions and regularly report sexual and verbal abuse – a troubling reflection of Musk’s neoliberal union-busting policies and general disdain for the working class.
That Musk’s Trumpian tirades have any impact on global politics, even as his unsustainable businesses eat through public funds, should worry us deeply; and his imperialist projects to obtain resources for wild futuristic dream schemes should worry us even more.
New green technological innovation must be led by a socialist government in a planned economy for the benefit of the people, not abandoned to the whims of crazed Messiah complex tech tycoons who value profit above all else. Musk’s plans to colonise Mars stem not from any desire to improve people’s lives, but from a dangerous and pathological self-obsession — and let’s face it, SpaceX isn’t getting anyone to Mars by 2024.
Musk is not an innovator. He is an impediment to innovation, privatising and partitioning off research and development, using copyright and law-fare to obstruct what should be the wide circulation of scientific research. He is a parasite, an imperialist, and a class enemy – his shoddy empire and degenerate cowboy-capitalist ideology must be smashed.