With Musk chosen as Time’s Person of the Year for 2021, maybe it's time to ask the question: Is his bold vision for the future what we need, or is it all about himself?
Time magazine yesterday named tech billionaire Elon Musk its Person of the Year for 2021, a decision that has drawn some flak over his controversial stances on issues from taxes to exploitative labour practices.
Founder and CEO of space exploration company SpaceX and car company Tesla, Musk is now valued as the richest private individual in the world with a net worth touching $300 billion.
His tentacles span everything from robotics to renewables, cryptocurrency to brain-computer implants. He's co-hosted Saturday Night Live and pilots a Twitter account that drives Wall Street up the proverbial wall.
“A few short years ago, Musk was roundly mocked as a crazy con artist on the verge of going broke. The shy South African with Asperger’s syndrome, who escaped a brutal childhood and overcame personal tragedy, bends governments and industry to the force of his ambition,” Time gushed in their profile of Musk.
The title of Person of the Year is judged to be someone whose work and actions shape our world, for better or worse – Hitler and Stalin were previous selections too – and by that measure, Musk has had a considerable impact.
But has it been for good?
Popularly portrayed to be an entrepreneurial “genius” and a visionary ubermensch of the present era, Musk’s wealth – much of which hedges on selling the public on products in the future rather than the present – would never have been possible without generous support from the US federal government.
In the same breath, he recently quipped that the government was “inherently not a good steward of capital”.
For Musk, probably his greatest goal is to, in his own words, “make life multi-planetary and enable humanity to become a spacefaring civilization.”
Many have called out how “crackpot, masculinist and even childish” that dream is, arguing that space travel is a waste of resources and what essentially amounts to a repetition of the colonisation of the New World.
But as Leigh Phillips writes in Jacobin, the real business of SpaceX was “never a Martian colony but rather servicing a mature satellite market, stealing government space contracts from the likes of Boeing, and kicking off a terrestrial rocket transport sector.”
Musk, then, has tapped into a grand narrative to brilliantly market himself, much like Pepsi or Apple do when they use emotive themes like love or unity to sell their products.
And much like those corporations, Musk operates from the same playbook as the 1 percent do. He has made no bones about his opposition to a billionaires tax, while only paying an effective tax rate of 3.27 percent between 2014 and 2018.
One of his critics, US Senator Elizabeth Warren, tweeted that Time’s decision highlighted the need for tax reform, “so the person of the year will actually pay taxes and stop freeloading off everyone else”.
Then there is the question of shady labour practices that take place in Musk’s firms.
A More Perfect Union, an educational nonprofit that focuses on centering working people in media coverage, spoke to factory workers at Tesla about what it’s like to work for the richest man in the world – and found a toxic, racist, and exploitative workplace culture that stems from the top.
An ex-Tesla worker, Richard Ortiz, spoke about Musk’s illegal union-busting at the company: Ortiz tried to organise his co-workers at a Tesla California factory and was “coercively interrogated” three times in response before being illegally fired.
Another Tesla worker Dennis Duran came forward to detail extraordinary dangerous working conditions at the company’s Bay Area plant, which he described as “a modern-day industrial sweatshop”.
Marcus Vaughn, one of many Black workers filing legal action against Tesla, claimed to be called racial slurs by his manager and witnessed a fellow Black co-worker beaten with a chair. After bringing it to Musk and HR, he was fired for “not having a positive attitude.”
And finally, there’s Musk’s public-facing persona: brimming with juvenile quips and edgelordism par excellence as he beams out his thoughts – most of them from his “porcelain throne” he admits – across cyberspace to 66 million Twitter stans, has often veered into petulant recklessness, if not outright abuse of his massive platform.
This was a man who downplayed a global health crisis last year; who defied California authorities and ordered his staff back to work; who has been accused of lying about the capabilities of Tesla’s Autopilot; who could influence the stock market with a single tweet and lead to the overvaluation of cryptocurrencies.
BREAKING REPORT: Elon Musk named Time Magazine's 2021 Person of the Year, despite SLAMMING VACCINE MANDATES for 'erosion of freedom' and – Calling on Congress to THROW OUT Biden’s ‘Build Back Better Bill’ – “Don’t Pass It”..— Chuck Callesto (@ChuckCallesto) December 13, 2021
Last month, the UN World Food Programme issued an appeal to the world’s superrich, naming Musk and arguing that a one-time donation of $6.6 billion could solve the global hunger crisis. To which Musk replied: “If WFP can describe on this Twitter thread exactly how $6B will solve world hunger, I will sell Tesla stock right now and do it”.
Musk’s response was the latest instance of what writer Anand Giridharadas has described as private philanthropy masquerading as “reputation laundering”, where plutocrats of new Gilded Age-level inequality can indulge in an inexpensive way of signaling their virtue without having to fundamentally change the system.
To paraphrase Giridharadas, we should expect that “plutes are gonna plute” – and Musk might be no different.