Elon Musk and the Myth of the Capitalist Savior

(Image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

If Elon Musk didn’t exist, America would have had to invent him. A South African immigrant who parlayed a fortune made during the dot-com boom into an array of visionary enterprises, from electric sports cars to space travel, Musk has emerged as something of a corporate rock star in recent years, acquiring the kind of fanatic devotion and press attention usually reserved for celebrities. Part of that appeal, certainly, is Musk’s sexy portfolio of companies — no one sits in starry-eyed awe of immured software developers, after all — but most of it must stem from the man himself: relatively young, immoderately bold, incurably outspoken (often to his detriment), and deeply conversant in youth culture, Musk projects an image of the kind of profligate playboy those immersed in the Capitalist mythos have been taught to admire: the person without a master, someone whose money and esteem allow them to do and say whatever they want, go wherever they want, and be whoever they want — someone with the resources to make even their wildest dreams a reality.

In one respect this is simply the paradoxical fantasy of upward mobility that capitalism has sold to the Proletariat from time immemorial: Anyone, it says, can escape the workaday drudgery of the daily grind, rising from serf to lord, with only a bit of hard work and ingenuity. This is almost always false, of course — proof that a little hope is not only a dangerous thing, but a useful mental oubliette — and itself is an implicit acknowledgement that the system is deeply inequitable. Why else would it couch its promise of apotheosis in the form of an escape? But in Musk, this fantasy takes on a second, slightly altered appearance. It is not the well-worn story of the immigrant who went from rags to riches (this would be a somewhat hilarious characterization, given Musk’s history) or even the story of how the magic of capitalism delivered yet another human being to disgustingly outsized wealth, but is instead the tale of what might be termed the Capitalist Savior: the pioneering wunderkind who — with a little help from the marvels of the competitive marketplace — emerges from seeming obscurity to blaze a path forward for humanity, inventing technologies, thinking thoughts, and dreaming dreams that could not possibly have emerged within “lesser” economic frameworks.

Such an archetype is, again, paradoxical — or at least nonsensical — because it posits the idea that only Capitalists can save us from capitalism. But it is just such torturous logic that forms the core of late capitalism — if not in theory, then certainly in practice. As its flaws become ever more untenable, as its injustices become ever more damning, American capitalism finds itself metastasizing into an authoritarian fiction — a system whose only true believers are those who directly benefit from its injustices.

Such deeply broken structures would not exist long on their own merits, of course, and require a powerful propaganda machine with which to head off popular discontent. But the “classic” propaganda of, say, the Soviet Union, which upheld the status quo through a near-total monopoly on information (along with the ever-present threat of violence) is far too heavy-handed for modern Westerners, who have become inculcated against such clumsy tactics through years of exposure, both through popular media and the work of their own governments. Implicit in all such damnations is the idea that propaganda is something that only “other countries” engage in — itself a form of propaganda whose subtlety has proven instructive to political influencers over the years.

Capitalist propaganda, when it cannot explicitly call on the threat of violence, must be more insidious if it is to be effective. It accomplishes this, largely, through careful omission, masking whole lies with half-truths. This allows Capitalists to admit to the system’s surface weaknesses while ignoring its systemic flaws, both condemning and absolving it of its sins in the same breath. It is a tack that contains the rigor of impartial investigation and something of the verisimilitude of confession — a willingness to criticize the system and, by doing so, demonstrate its openness and objective superiority. But the problem is not the truth of such criticisms, but their extent — of what topics are simply not open for discussion at all. To this end, capitalism must carefully delineate the limits of debate, presenting its borders as sacrosanct and impassable. It must present as gospel the idea that whatever problems arise within the Capitalist framework can and must be resolved within that framework, and no other. There is no appeal to concepts outside the system, because there is no outside the system.

This is where the Capitalist Savior comes in — a person who exists to fill a hole that the system itself created, an exemplar of its essential weakness who — in a clever manipulation that makes a virtue of a fault — is instead presented as the organic, inevitable outcome of a vital, fully functioning economic process. People like Elon Musk essentially run cover for capitalism’s inherent deficiencies, constituting an important vanguard in the system’s self-perpetuating myth while subtly (and not-so-subtly) reinforcing many of its central tenets.

Paramount among these tenets is the instillation of reverence for the system itself, even — and especially — in those whom the system does not directly benefit, or even actively punishes. Unlike authoritarian governments, where fear is the primary driver of subjugation, late capitalism proffers envy as its preferred yoke, an approach that has proven startlingly effective. If Americans are “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” struggling to claim their piece of the fabulous wealth that both surrounds them and is denied them, then the Capitalist Savior represents the end goal — someone who lends credence to what reality would seem to suggest is a fantasy at best, a simple con at worst: the idea that we, too, can acquire true wealth, and with it freedom. In Capitalist mythology, of course, wealth is the only path to freedom, and capitalism is the only locus within which such a path can be traveled.

It is important, too, that the Capitalist Savior be portrayed as a “lone wolf,” and that his or her success is seen as stemming directly from a singular strength of will, higher mental astuteness, or superior business savvy. Here again, Capitalist propaganda takes a rare, or partial, truth and elevates it to the status of a universal law. CEO’s of innovative companies may indeed be profoundly intelligent, progressive, or driven, but they are rarely innovators themselves, and are more often the stewards of greater (and often overlooked) talents.

This role has merit, of course, but it is often overstated. In reading some of the fawning profiles of Musk, one would think he — the star man come to save us — had alone invented rockets, or electric cars, or the idea of colonies on Mars. This isn’t a shot at Musk so much as it an indictment of the corporate media who parrot the Capitalist ideal of the “rugged individualist” — one who prospers by “upending” the system. This ideal serves two functions within the Capitalist myth: One, it insinuates that individuals are more important and effective than groups, and that the scores of workers who actually produce (or conceive) goods are less important than those who employ them. Two, it legitimizes the idea that a ridiculous amount of wealth rightly belongs to the Capitalist Savior, who is solely responsible for the success of the product, service, etc.. This ideal is internalized not just by the Capitalist Savior, but by those who aspire to his or her position. All accept the myth of the lone, bolt-from-the-blue genius, and are either oblivious to, or willfully ignorant of, the complex webs of generational wealth, racial privilege, and veiled social networks that render such triumphs far less remarkable.

But doesn’t the Capitalist Savior deserve some credit? They alone took on the risk of starting a business, after all, and they alone triumphed in the gauntlet of the competitive marketplace. Surely unprofitable ideas are rejected — no matter who proposes them — and sink inexorably into oblivion? At first glance it would seem that this is true. Yet, once again, supposedly sacrosanct Capitalist ideas, like the concepts of “risk” and “competition,” are in reality administered with studied negligence, applying only to those who cannot call on hoarded wealth, illegitimate power, or State cooperation to extricate themselves from the supposedly dynamic and self-correcting realities of the marketplace. For those without need of it, risk and competition are merely useful methods of control: They justify the idea that life must have winners and losers; that some will enjoy grotesque wealth while others suffer in abject poverty, and that existence is merely a contest in which the masses are to be pitted against one another in a desperate free-for-all that promises them the world, and delivers them nothing.

The Capitalist emphasis on competition is especially ruinous, because in ennobling solitary struggle it belittles collective action — the only means by which the majority may challenge the status quo. The American Right’s demonization and dismantling of government is especially telling in this regard. It is not just an attempt to prevent “big government” from forcing limits on Plutocrats and their corporate fiefdoms, it’s also a way to cripple the only institution that presents a viable threat to their power. By arguing that only enterprising Capitalists like Musk can push the country forward, and that government is a hindrance that prevents them from doing so, American conservatives don’t just perpetuate the myth that only individuals — free from the constraints of bureaucracy — can bring about change, they turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you have taken care to eliminate every other possibility, the only one that remains doesn’t just appear indispensable, it is.

Where does that leave us? Right where we’ve always been: at the mercy of the Corporate Gods; cowering at their whims, grateful for their charity, but always powerless to stop them. Musk is beloved largely because he is perceived to be a benevolent deity, because his market success happens to coincide with what progressives want, or think is cool: electric vehicles, civilian space travel, high-speed rail lines. But this is a lucky confluence, a false vacuum, and one that Musk has shrewdly exploited for its public relations benefit — he is, he claims, “just an engineer” who wishes to develop technologies that will brighten the world. Yet when pressed — when profits are at risk — the veil quickly drops. Witness his recent decision to re-open his California Tesla factory in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, a move that quite literally put his employees’ lives in jeopardy. Musk quickly took to Twitter and — in classic Right-wing mode — attempted to re-frame a bald lust for profit as a self-sacrificing battle against a “powerful” government bureaucracy, stating that he “would be on the line with everyone else” and that “if anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.” The absurdity of such a pose cannot be overstated. Once again, risk is for the working class, not for the wealthy CEO, but in reading Musk’s self-aggrandizing statements, one would think he shared equally in that risk — that he, too, was threatened by circumstances that he himself created.

Such actions should give Musk’s Progressive admirers pause. While the media may portray him as a brilliant, pot-smoking meme-lord destined to end vehicle pollution, revolutionize transit, and take us to Mars, the reality is that he is still a product of the Capitalist system, where apparently enlightened ideals persist only so long as they happen to coincide with profit. As Musk himself states in a recent New York Times puff piece: “Accept reality as it is as opposed to what you wish it were.”

Hardly the sentiment you’d expect from the idealistic scientist that Musk’s fans imagine him to be. But for the Capitalist, they are words to live by.

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Walter Jones

Walter Jones

Old man yells at movies.

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