That perverse expression, “Elon Musk,” has been popping up again in the last day. Something to do with an announcement about a hyperloop between New York City and Washington D.C. that this “Elon Musk” has received verbal governmental approval for. As is typical for this discourse, it really doesn’t seem as if people care as much about this potential hyperloop as they do about“Elon Musk” having said something about it. I have been noticing the usage of this designation, “Elon Musk,” for many years now. It first came to my attention around the start of this decade, at which time I took it to be an aftershave. It was only a few years later that I recognized my blunder and came to the correct understanding, which is that “Elon Musk” does not actually exist.
Legend has it that “Elon Musk” is visionary or a fool, depending on the narrative, along with being possessed with seemingly superhuman capacities to work 100-hour weeks, having slept for decades only six-and-a-half hours on average a night, reading incessantly, and having founded and led companies such as Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring Company; a person who is, depending on whom you ask, precluding the collapse of human civilization with at least omniscience and omnipotence among other merits, or a bastard child of Cervantes and Ayn Rand possessed by the will of a Satan.
Having looked into the matter, it appears that while these companies do exist and have a founder and CEO, who admittedly does seem to work a lot and sleep not a whole lot, the concept that is talked about so much, as described above, bears no correspondence to any existing entity.
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There is first the misconstruction of “Elon Musk” as a creator. Many victims of this fallacy talk about “Elon Musk,” sometimes shortened to merely “Musk,” in a typically positive light to refer to an entity that has created electric cars, solar panels and even rockets. To create a rocket, though, you do need to be a rocket scientist, and so far there are no signs that “Elon Musk” is one. However, even being a rocket scientist would not be enough, as many other functions must be fulfilled for the creation of a rocket. One of these functions may be the organization and deployment of capital—machines, labor, instructions—and official communications about it.
This may well be an arduous function. But curiously, so far no term has come up to refer to an entity who exclusively and exhaustively performs these important functions for companies such as SpaceX. Instead people keep talking about “Elon Musk,” much as they kept talking about that other mystical thing, “Steve Jobs,” as having created iPhones. On inquiring into that, it turned out that workers at the Foxconn factory had not organized into a union of this name. At that time partisans of that term told me to try and locate “Steve Jobs” in smartphone technology itself, not the individual phones. But on isolating the “smart” part of the phones—the internet, touchscreens, GPS—rather than the “phone” part, I was led down a surprisingly short rabbit hole to the Department of Defense, whose scientists had created those technologies, and who also did not collectively go by “Steve Jobs.”
Similarly, on looking into the technology that this alleged “Elon Musk” had built, I found, first of all, $4.9 billion in government support for Tesla, SolarCity and SpaceX—for example Department of Energy grants that enabled non-Elon Musk-identifying engineers at these companies to create their batteries and solar panels. In other words, benefits accrued to the investors of these companies in large part from the public’s checkbooks—but on looking inward into my own being, I found that I too do not identify in the slightest part as an “Elon Musk,” and it turned out neither does anyone I know. This lent further credence to my growing suspicion that it does not exist.
Money and technology are the cruder stuff, some people then told me, it’s the vision that counts. And “Elon Musk” has such far-sighted and holistic thoughts about the real challenges facing humanity, such intelligent predictions and the beneficent plans. So I looked into the ideas: for example, the warnings about developing strong AI that were typically associated with this radiant supposed fount of perspicacity. But on that subject, I found “Elon Musk” is used as shorthand for the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, who outlined those views in his book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. As for the illustrations of the future of human civilization, I found “Elon Musk” to be a signifier for the entire genre of utopian science fiction. As for detailed interviews about rockets described as “interviews with Elon Musk” and such, I found the ideas contained there to be nothing more than the dissemination of knowledge created over generations by the gradual and social endeavor of science, to which I felt my contribution increasing: “Elon Musk” was indeed becoming apparent as a very weak hypothesis.
But public understanding still seemed to be shifting in the opposite direction. The ontology of “Elon Musk” is on the rise. Not just science fiction, but also, random future-oriented pop dialog emanating from the field of science, technology and society studies is being increasing represented by this placeholder. One would think, if one were to actually believe that “Elon Musk” is real, that every random thing it says becomes a headline. The articles underneath these headlines, talking about how we are all living in a simulation, how we must become cyborgs or how robots will make a universal basic income inevitable, are sometimes accompanied by random photographs of some klutzy-looking South African businessman, but the frequently klutzy ideas themselves I have only been able to trace back to commentators who are not South African businessmen. The mystery persists.
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Meanwhile, there has been a parallel universe of discourse about this conception—against the babbling about an imaginary creator and fount, there are also those who revile the purported “Elon Musk.” This discourse, mainly from the left end of the spectrum, was most recently prominent a couple months ago when the Guardian reported on how workers at Tesla’s Fremont, CA plant are being treated very badly. It is equally erroneous, however, as it ascribes to some supposed “Elon Musk” the agency of exploiting and abusing workers for Tesla and his other companies. But to use the language of Marx for the left, this is rank bourgeois ideology, obscuring the real and systemic workings of a market economy by distilling them into a single entity.
Consider, after all, that the company Tesla exists, to manufacture electric cars and solar technology, for the stated purpose of “accelerat[ing] the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” This is a grand task. Tesla faces great competition from traditional auto manufacturers. It actually makes no profits as of now. It is backlogged on its orders.
In this situation, to ask for better conditions for workers at Tesla—which is for sure a virtuous ask—implies the following, and should be pursued to its end without invoking phantasmagoria such as “Elon Musk” at which action and accountability can begin and end: Depending on how good the conditions are to be for workers, Tesla would suffer or outright cease to be. Every bit of welfare it grants to its workers makes it that much less competitive in the market, where traditional auto manufacturers are brimming to edge it out into obsolescence. This is how the market works, at least in its current intertwinings with specific political interests. To create good work conditions to the full extent the average socialist would want them, it is likely that Tesla would simply go out of business. Which many leftists would be fine with—after all, if a company that mistreats its workers goes out of business, particularly out of pressure applied from or for labor, that would be a good thing by a standard socialist ethos.
But it gets messy when we try to figure an “Elon Musk” into this equation: A world in which some “Elon Musk” thing could actually exist as something with any relevant and realistic agency in improving work conditions on the assembly line at Tesla can only be a world in which the market economy would at least not extend to the energy sector, in which case, then, Tesla itself would not exist, in which case “Elon Musk” would not exist. But obviously, this situation is contradictory, and cannot exist. And in any case, such a world is currently categorically inexistent. So, again, we seem to have reached the same dead end: “Elon Musk” does not exist.
Denouncing “Elon Musk,” then, as leftists get so chubbed up by, makes no sense. It is performativity via a chimerical signifier. When leftists express disapproval about the way Tesla treats its workers, and with that imply that “Elon Musk” stop being like that or that Tesla disappear (the two amount to the same thing, as we’ve seen), they actually mean that they don’t want the overall world as it is. In which case, that is what they should say.
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The distinction isn’t pointless. Talking about “Elon Musk” diverts attention from other crucial topics. In response to the tweet made by “Elon Musk” that it has received verbal governmental approval for a hyperloop, even the typically hog-wild fanatical Wired magazine couldn’t help but point out that building infrastructure “doesn’t work like that,” explaining that in the real world, numerous hurdles including but not limited to political will from layers of geopolitical units, regulations of all stripes, land ownership issues, and, perhaps most significantly, money—which in the United States is usually in ample supply for missiles and tax breaks, but somehow becomes an exquisite, precious thing when it comes to future-oriented, common interest projects. (The more shrewd City Lab seconds the skepticism.)
Similarly, the Guardian story from a couple months ago, for those insistent on discussing solely the evils of companies such as Tesla, most fundamentally only substantiated the fact that the private sector cannot be relied upon to transition away from fossil fuels. In fact, the same day that story was published, the New York Times had an extensive interactive piece on how scientists are fearing Antarctica is disintegrating even faster than they had thought. And just about a week prior to tweet about the hyperloop, a chunk of Antarctica the size of Delaware actually mutinied against the Anthropocene and broke off from the continent. There probably is no better issue around which to make demands than delinking the energy system from the market economy, but even the leftists would rather wave fists at this wad of hot air known as “Elon Musk.”
Both glorying a purported capitalist übermensch and ranting about how capitalists are evil thus not only miss the theoretical mark, but also present practical missed opportunities. On the prompt of a conversation between “Elon Musk” and the federal government, and in general anything good companies like SpaceX and the Boring Company are doing, it is at this point a societal imperative to refrain from ogling over that alleged isolated instance, and redirect the conversation to all the rusty hinges upon which the potential of such projects rest. Even assuming more and more private mass infrastructure is good—although a better conversation from a critical perspective would be questioning the very desirability of having mass infrastructure manufactured according to the vision of the present Silicon Valley billionaire elite, with its particular ethos and sensibilities—it isn’t going to happen with a mere Washington swish of a Silicon Valley wand.
Correspondingly, when stories emerge about how companies like Tesla are doing bad, leftists should talk about how the market economy precludes any moral agency or will in the sector of renewable energy (at the very least), either to have a profitable business that can disturb calcified hierarchies and create a mass market in renewables, or to treat its workers well. In that case, both for the workers and for the very things this notion of “Elon Musk” is supposed to have so many opinions on—the future of civilization—leftists should realize “Elon Musk” does not exist and stop talking about it. Instead, they should be seizing the microphone and directing the conversation toward the necessity of suppressing market forces entirely in the energy sector. There are some issues about which making arguments against the efficacy of markets is more difficult, or having more state control probably even undesirable, but the energy sector isn’t one of them. But the value of this will only be realized if if leftists get over venting their inexhaustible ressentiment at fantasies and throwing shade at shadows.
“Elon Musk” is a false notion. “Elon Musk” has not created cars or rockets, or had any ideas about humanity and its future. But at the same time, there is no “Elon Musk” who has any relevant agency in having a comprehensive and wholesome impact insofar as its companies operate within a market economy. Fetishizing the individual for its faults as an economic agent, such a common diversion of the left, is as foolhardy as its right-wing variant of fetishizing the individual for its will. It is moot to construct such an agent who can or should act more ethically in the market economy. The construct would dissolve out of real-world contradiction if ever it were attempted.
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It is always the zealots who construct a messiah, and likewise, the Church and the Inquisition that construct a heretic. Neither can there be a capitalist savior (or destroyer) except in projection from the fantasies of some quasi-religious dogma cloaked in political terms, nor heresy, except in relation to religious institutions. Enthusiasts of the Boring Project, Tesla and SpaceX, if they care about the renegade visions and productions in the world, and not some figurine associated with them, need to forget their figurine, and start talking about the complexities renegade visions typically run up against. Leftists, likewise, if they have concerns beyond moral crusading, should remember to hate the game, not the player.
The halo of a god shines only in the eye of the believer, and no witch exists except burning at the stake. Neither does the rumored “Elon Musk,” except against the stakes that are currently lined up against us. Instead of further shrouding the workings of capitalism in this smokescreen of a fixation, we should talk about what really exists and needs addressing. Otherwise nonexistence may very soon start to catch up with more and more of the yet-existing world.