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1 June 2022

From bullied to billionaire – the inevitable triumph of Elon Musk

In a new biography, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO is portrayed as a troubled visionary who views success as a foregone conclusion.

By Will Dunn

In the sci-fi novel Excession by the late Scottish writer Iain M Banks, a black sphere appears orbiting a remote star. Like Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square painting, which shocked Russian audiences when it was first exhibited in 1915, the object defies understanding. Its impenetrability gives it power: without moving or reacting – simply by being impossible to fathom – it gathers civilisations around it, and brings them to war.

Most wealthy individuals use small companies called family offices to manage their money and legal affairs. Elon Musk’s family office is called Excession, LLC. Perhaps this is simply a nod to the sci-fi novels Musk has enjoyed since he was a boy, but perhaps it also indicates something about how he engages with the world. If he is impossible to understand or predict, then he is unassailable. He can move through the markets like a perfect black sphere, impervious to criticism or doubt.

The latest biography of the world’s richest person (at time of writing) finds plenty of reasons why someone such as Musk might develop an obsession with invulnerability. Michael Vlismas, who attended the same school in Pretoria as Musk, mixes his own experiences with accounts from Musk’s childhood friends, acquaintances and teachers to present a picture of South Africa’s education system in the 1980s – a world of uncompromising discipline, social division and vicious bullying. When he was 12 years old, Musk was kicked in the head by an older boy with enough force to propel him down a flight of stairs; the group of boys then picked up their victim and beat him so badly he spent two weeks in hospital. The school’s principal later reflected that at the time, “Bullying was accepted as part of growing up.”

Musk’s parents, Maye and Errol, divorced when he was eight years old. Maye was a former model who became engaged to Errol against her will. Errol arrived at her house unannounced and proposed to her; when she declined, he announced their engagement to her parents anyway. In her own book, A Woman Makes a Plan, quoted by Vlismas, she describes her nine-year marriage as a “hell” of anger, controlling behaviour and infidelity.

Two years after their split, the ten-year-old Elon moved in with his father. South Africa’s economy, in contrast to others, boomed in the 1970s as the price of gold increased almost 15-fold. Errol was an engineer with multiple business interests, and the Musks were wealthy. Maye suggests this could have been behind Elon’s decision to move from her one-bedroom flat to Errol’s house, where he was given science-fiction books and comics – and, most importantly, a computer.

Such luxuries came at a price, however; Musk’s father is recalled as promiscuous and unstable. Errol has admitted in interviews to having shot and killed three intruders who broke in to the family property (he was acquitted on the basis of self-defence) and to having made the one-off “mistake”, aged 72, of fathering a child with his 30-year-old stepdaughter, whom he had helped raise from the age of four. Elon Musk has described his father in interviews as “a terrible human being”. 

The online persona of Elon Musk – the late-night toilet-tweeter, the billionaire who smoked weed live on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast and who picks fights with the US government – suggests he inherited a certain unpredictability from his father. He definitely inherited an aptitude for making money. The younger Musk sold his first piece of software, a video game called Blastar, at age 12. The code for the game was published in the magazine PC and Office Technology, and Musk was paid the equivalent of $500. He began investing in the stock market as a teenager. In 2009, he told an interviewer that aged 15 or 16, he “made a few bets that did pretty well” on the South African market, rapidly tripling his initial stake. Practically all of the wealth he has accrued since that point has been not so much earned as socially agreed, in the form of investment from the venture capitalists, banks and retail investors that bought in to his promise of a future in which technology would solve everything.

Musk had ambitions to leave South Africa, but on finishing school he enrolled to study financial management at the University of Pretoria. This might well have been a safeguard against conscription – the apartheid government was fighting the Namibian independence movement, and needed a ready supply of teenagers for the battlefield. Those who refused to join the South African Defence Force could face years in prison. It’s not clear to what extent Musk actually attended the university; within months he left, aged just 17, for Canada, where his mother was born and where he was entitled to a passport that would get him into the United States. His father told him he would be back in South Africa within three months.

[See also: Victory for Emmanuel Macron and Twitter for Elon Musk]

Here and there, Vlismas picks up an echo of Errol Musk in his son’s behaviour. At university in Canada, Elon asked a female student out for ice cream; when she cancelled the date to study, he showed up at her desk, cones in hand. When Musk arrived in Silicon Valley – having transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, he moved to California in 1995 – he wanted a job at Netscape, then the most recognisable company in the emerging business of the internet. After his application was ignored, he went to the company’s building and stood in the lobby, waiting to see if success would arrive simply because he’d shown up to collect it.

The ice cream worked: the student in question, Justine Wilson, became Musk’s first wife (she would later recall that during their first dance he whispered into her ear: “I am the alpha in this relationship.”) But in the Netscape lobby, no one gave him a second glance, so Musk and his younger brother, Kimbal, started their own company, an online business directory called Zip2.

For Musk, the most contentious point about the start of his business career has been whether it was made financially possible by his father, whom he has described as “irrelevant” to the expensive process of studying and then setting up a company in the US. In 2019, he did acknowledge that his father made an investment in Zip2, but claimed that this was part of a “much later” funding round that “would have happened anyway”.

If Musk is plagued by insecurity and a need to be seen as a success independently of his father, it shows in his obsession with overwork. At Zip2 he kept overheads low by sleeping in the office and showering in a nearby YMCA; at Tesla, the electric car company he bought into in 2004, and SpaceX, the rocket and satellite business he founded in 2002, he began working 120-hour weeks, using sleeping pills to get a few hours of rest in the office before beginning another exhausting day of being a visionary architect of the future.

[See also: If only freedom of speech was as simple as Elon Musk thinks]

It sounds like a joyless and pitiable existence. It might also have been a form of escape. In 2002, shortly after Musk sold his second successful business (the online payments platform PayPal), he and Justine lost their first child, Nevada, at ten weeks old. They would go on to have twins, then triplets, but in Justine’s blog posts Vlismas finds an account of a husband who had become dismissive and belittling. They divorced acrimoniously in 2008.

In a 2016 TED talk on storytelling, Justine spoke about how trauma can become, for some people, a driving force: “We create a parallel world to escape the world that rejects us or which we find too painful to live in,” she observed. Some people, she continued, were so effective at this that their escapism changed everyone else’s reality, allowing them to “move between worlds”.

Musk’s greatest ambition is to accomplish this literally, by creating a new civilisation on Mars, and his stated reason for doing this is the same as his reason for creating a new market for electric cars: to save humanity from extinction. Perhaps this is a messiah complex, perhaps it’s a well-worn technique for shifting a few more cars – the automotive industry began adding tail-fins in the late 1940s, as space rockets entered the public consciousness. What’s certain is that he has been aided in this vision by financial markets, which, like Musk, hit a low point in 2009 but emerged from it at a gallop. Fourteen years of low interest rates and nearly $27trn dollars of quantitative easing produced the longest bull market in history. More than anyone else on Earth, Musk is a creature of the great boom in equities. Through calculation or conviction, he offered the most exuberant promises in a market that already brimmed with confidence. At its peak, in the autumn of 2021, Tesla’s market capitalisation reached over $1.2trn, and Musk became the first person with a fortune valued over $300bn.

He was never really the richest person in the world, though. The greatest single reserve of wealth on Earth is probably the 250 billion barrels of oil beneath Saudi Arabia – worth roughly $25trn, if you could sell it all at today’s prices – and the main beneficiary is the country’s autocratic ruler, Mohammed bin Salman. As Vladimir Putin (with Russian oil reserves equivalent to 80 billion barrels) can attest, there is still no job that pays like that of the petrol-powered despot. Fossil-fuel-derived wealth is as solid as national borders, whereas Musk’s is a fortune that can never be spent: were he to sell all his shares in Tesla, the confidence of the market would evaporate – and with it, his wealth, which is composed mostly of equity in his own companies.

[See also: The spirit of the age: Why the tech billionaires want to leave humanity behind]

Like Henry Adams, the protagonist in Mark Twain’s The Million Pound Bank Note, Musk has an illiquid fortune, but the mere fact of it – his celebrity, as ostensibly the world’s richest individual – brings yet more money his way. Through his erratic and combative presence on Twitter, he was able to send meme stocks and niche cryptocurrencies soaring in the frenzied gambling that reliably precedes a crash. As inflation arrived, however, central banks reined in their bond-buying and raised interest rates, and the dollar value of speculative promises on humanity’s long-term future began to tumble.

The rational response (or rational, perhaps, for a megalomaniac) was to launch a bid to buy the platform that had given Musk so much leverage in the first place, using debt secured against the many million-pound notes of his Tesla stock. In doing so, however, he crossed a line that everyone but him could see. No one minded the wacky billionaire Elon Musk being one of the loudest voices on Twitter, and few people cared when he became the company’s biggest shareholder. But when Musk announced he wanted to own and control it to preserve “free speech” on the platform, large numbers of people – and more importantly, investors – thought this sounded like a bad idea. Twitter’s value – already on a downward trajectory, with the rest of the market – has fallen by almost $10bn since Musk agreed to buy the company, leaving him legally committed to the hugely expensive purchase of something other investors increasingly don’t want.

His response has been to do what many people do when they look up from their phones and find themselves confronted by an uncomfortable reality: he switched to alternative facts, and claimed that Twitter was mostly “bots”. Like many Remainers in 2016 and Donald Trump supporters in 2020, he simply denied that the people opposing him could really exist. Personal criticism and serious allegations about his conduct towards employees became “political attacks”, orchestrated by the Democrats (whom he now refers to as “the party of hate”) and possibly Bill Gates.

In writing a generous biography of Musk – the book contains 32 instances of the word “genius” along with seven instances of “visionary” – Michael Vlismas contributes to the myth of the exceptional individual, a figure that is useful to the narratives that drive markets in the good times. But in revisiting the family members, friends, investors and collaborators who made Musk, he also gives the reader a glimpse of the living person who was used to create that persona, and an opportunity to ask: was this really what they wanted?

[See also: Can Twitter force Elon Musk to pay up?]

Elon Musk: Risking It All
By Michael Vlismas
Icon, 272pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special