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30 November 2023

Elon Musk’s death drive

The tech billionaire built a world that he could rule – then allowed it to destroy him.

By Quinn Slobodian

When Henry Ford published My Life and Work a century ago in 1923, it was, like Walter Isaacson’s biography of Elon Musk, an instant bestseller, shifting 80,000 copies in the Soviet Union alone by 1930. Ford was famous for two things. First, the assembly line, bringing the entire production process under one roof in the gargantuan River Rouge complex in Michigan. The other was the Model T. Earning the famous “five dollar a day” wage, workers at the plant would, at least in theory, be able to purchase the product they were making.

Soon after the book’s publication, Friedrich von Gottl-Ottlilienfeld did Ford the honour of turning his name into an “ism”. The German economist saw Fordism as not just about mass production plus mass consumption, but a rewriting of the social contract on the back of a single company’s balance sheet. By tying worker wages to productivity gains, Fordism offered a new basis for social solidarity in the fusion of worker, boss and machine.

How might a similar economist describe Teslaism today? For all his faults, the electric car company’s CEO Elon Musk has, unlike his fellow tech moguls, never been primarily in the business of surveillance capitalism – siphoning off the “data exhaust” of user-generated activity online to sell to advertisers. Amid all the talk of the attention economy, one had to concede that Musk was making something material in the world.

This exceptional status has sometimes led to exaggerations. Jonathan Taplin’s recent book, The End of Reality: How Four Billionaires are Selling Out Our Future – for long stretches an overzealous exercise in loose association by which even HG Wells and Charles Lindbergh are branded libertarian – calls Musk “an inventor at the level of Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell”.

The analogy with Ford seems less far-fetched, not just because Tesla became the first US automotive company to go public since Ford in 1956. Rather, the comparison is most convincing in the way Musk splits his attention between the product and the production process. Musk shares Ford’s obsession with controlling the entire supply chain, involving a colossal scale shift. Ford’s River Rouge complex had 15 million square feet of floor space at its peak. The Gigafactory in Austin fits 10 million square feet inside a single site: the second biggest building in the world by volume.

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Isaacson rightly sees Musk’s commitment to vertical integration as one of his most consequential moves. When Musk realised in 2013 that Tesla was already using 10 per cent of the world’s batteries, he chose to go into the battery business. In 2023, Tesla went into lithium too, starting work on its first in-house refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas. By rejecting the “theology of globalisation” and choosing to manufacture components for Teslas and SpaceX rockets rather than outsourcing to third parties, Musk broke with the post-Cold War dogma, long before this became the new common sense following the pandemic and a principle of what is now touted as “Bidenomics”.

Musk took from his close friend, the investor Antonio Gracias, the idea that success was less about finding the best product than “building the machine that builds the machine”. In Isaacson’s telling, Musk emerges as a hero of cost-cutting and a tyrant of time-saving on the production floor. Sleeping under his desk or in boardrooms in the centre of the factory, he set up systems to monitor slowdowns in production: stations on the assembly line progressing well flashed green, others flashed red. When the light went red, he would show up at the shoulder of whoever was at the station.

Activity happened in frenetic “surges”, damaging to the minds and bodies of all involved. He installed robots in his factories in an obsession with automation – then took many of them out as he turned to “de-automation”. One of his favourite words is “delete”: it appears 35 times in the book. More than anything, it is the relentless attention to what economists call process innovation that has consumed the past two decades of Musk’s life (and from where his antipathy to working from home stems).

Yet Musk also inverted Ford. Rather than making a product affordable to all, he began at the top end of the consumer pyramid with a sports car affordable to very few. He took the eyebrow-raising decision to dip into customer deposits for Tesla’s Roadsters as the company struggled, but the gamble paid off. The golf-cart stigma around the electric car was washed away. In 2012, Motor Trend magazine named the Tesla model S its car of the year, a first for an electric vehicle.

[See also: Natasha Walter’s radical inheritance]

In the case of his rocket company, SpaceX, Musk’s dogged cost-cutting (not to mention corner-cutting and regulation-ignoring) turned his company into a sleek service provider for a range of government agencies, above all Nasa, which in 2008 gave him a $1.6bn contract to make 12 round trips to the International Space Station. To this day, SpaceX is the only US entity able to send “major military satellites and crews into orbit”. It currently has more than 60 manned and unmanned launches a year.

The use of a privately owned company as an outside contractor was new. In the past Nasa built its products on “cost-plus” contracts where it gave specifications to companies but kept the design in-house. The old system led to notorious cost overruns which offered a soft target for Musk’s campaigns of deletion.

Beginning in 2019, Musk expanded his menu of offerings with Starlink, a satellite constellation for internet provision. By his own account (and perhaps misunderstanding a popular saying), Musk said he wanted the service to be used to “watch Netflix and chill and get online for school”. But, as Isaacson divulges in the biography’s biggest scoop, the unforeseen consequences of privatising core military functions were laid bare last autumn at the beginning of the Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russia, when Musk refused to extend satellite coverage enough to allow for a sneak attack on the Russian naval fleet.

When this detail was recently leaked, Musk’s denial – and Isaacson’s retraction of his original claims – raised questions about a world where a biography can become a matter of geopolitics and a private businessperson can make foreign policy unilaterally. “How am I in this war?” Musk asks Isaacson. The answer is that war was a market and he had entered it.

Ford did not stop at cars either. He was also a rabid anti-Semite and from 1919, used the weekly newspaper the Dearborn Independent to propagate his views about the role of the Jews in the world’s evils. It is to the benefit of his family that there was no social media in his era. It is Musk’s misfortune that there is in ours.

For his first decade in the rocket and car business, Musk maintained the mystique of his brand. His political involvements were unremarkable and his infrequent public appearances seemed stage-managed to burnish his persona as genius-risk-taker-inventor: buying and flying a Soviet bloc jet fighter, a cameo in Iron Man 2 in 2010, posing in a white mandarin collar at the Met Gala in 2018 alongside his then girlfriend Grimes who wore a Tesla-themed choker. Many (though not all) were inclined to let his products speak for themselves.

[See also: Carlo Rovelli: “Einstein made more mistakes than anyone”]

By 2020, Tesla was shipping half a million cars a year. Yet that same year the firewall between the person and the product began to falter. Musk reacted first against the pandemic-related lockdowns that slowed production, and then against what he later dubbed “the woke mind virus” – the latter triggered, according to Isaacson, by Xavier (now Jenna), his child with his first wife Justine, coming out as transgender.

Social media offered Musk a space to exercise his imagination; he began to believe that people were out to undermine him and steal his hard-won glory. Before, he spent insomniac nights on the edge of the bed in what Grimes called the “thinking man statue pose”, staring into space. Now he was seduced by the screen’s glint.

In his new pose as the posting man, Musk’s focus fell away: it dribbled into circuitry and corroded the gears. The endorphins released by pushing provocative views went from offering stress release from the main event to becoming the main event itself. When Musk posted in April 2022 after a night of playing video games that he was making an offer to buy Twitter, he left behind the laws of physics he had invoked repeatedly when he wrangled with engineering problems, and travelled into territory controlled by the much more mercurial laws of the psyche – the rules that governed social networks and Musk’s own dark interior world. It was a perilous journey and not one he was well equipped to navigate.

After Musk’s lawyers and a Delaware court compelled him to overcome his buyer’s remorse and swallow the $44bn “hairball” of Twitter, Musk set about his standard practice of “deletion”. He eventually fired 75 per cent of Twitter’s staff, many after searching through employee messages to find those bad-mouthing him. But a social network is not a rocket. The chaotic roll-out of a paid verification system led to a parade of pranksters receiving the credential of a “blue tick” and using it to impersonate major brands. Millions in stock value were wiped out, and when Musk commanded a subordinate to tell Twitter users to stop using the platform to deter advertisers, he found out it didn’t work that way. To complete the sale he took on enormous debt, borrowing from his own companies and selling swathes of stock to pay for an asset whose estimated value was plummeting.

Changing the name of the service from Twitter to X and trumpeting its future as an “everything app”, Musk sounded less like Iron Man than a loudmouthed YouTube grifter. Sitting at Christmas with his family at the end of 2022, he shared that his main regret was “how often I stab myself in the thigh with a fork, how often I shoot my own feet and stab myself in the eye”. Of Twitter, he said “It’s a good place to dig your own grave. You get your shoulder into it and you keep on digging.”

Errol Musk. Photo by Gianluigi Guercia/AFP via Getty Images

To explain what looks like Musk’s current waterslide to self-annihilation, it becomes impossible to avoid psychologising. Musk has himself said he probably has a “very disturbing psychoanalytical black hole”, from which seems to stem both his maniacal drive and his habitual cruelty to those around him.

[See also: Hobbes was wrong]

Isaacson, along with almost everyone else, places much of this at the feet of Musk’s father, Errol. A trained engineer, Errol designed buildings and dabbled in illegal projects such as the emerald mine he operated in Zambia without the knowledge of the postcolonial government. “If you registered it,” he explained, “you would wind up with nothing because the blacks would take everything from you.”

Elon was born in Pretoria in 1971. After his parents split when he was a child, he continued to spend time with his father, despite Errol’s abusiveness. While Elon’s mother, Maye, the daughter of émigrés from Canada who moved to South Africa in 1950, is depicted as a saint and loving mother, Errol emerges as a worthy candidate for the pantheon of fictional and screen villains. He is Randall Flagg from Stephen King’s The Stand, the Man in Black in HBO’s Westworld (in which one of Musk’s ex-wives, Talulah Riley, had a major role), always just offstage, appearing only to destroy. He is the Judge of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, standing at the edge of the settlement.

“One minute he would be super-friendly,” Elon’s brother Kimbal recalls, “in the next he would be screaming at you, lecturing you for hours… calling you worthless, pathetic, making scarring and evil comments, not allowing you to leave”. Elon notices that Errol seems to be showing an interest in his stepdaughter Jana when she is 15, and later sires two children with her.

“He was such a terrible human being,” Elon is quoted saying, in tears. “My dad will have a carefully thought-out plan of evil. He will plan evil. Almost every crime you can possibly think about he has done. Almost every evil thing you could possibly think of, he has done.”

Elon’s lovers and family members often compare him to his father. “With Errol,” Justine says in a telling comment, “there was a sense that really bad things could happen around him. Whereas if the zombie apocalypse happened you would want to be on Elon’s team, because he would figure out a way to get those zombies in line.”

But how different are these really? It is hard not to see Musk’s workplace style as an endless effort to “get the zombies in line”. His father, his childhood, and his home nation are bound up into something he is trying to escape. South Africa “is still trying to destroy me”, he once said. In his desperate bid for mastery over an uncontrollable situation, the only tools are work and termination – or deletion. “If you were my employee I would fire you,” he told Justine.

Musk’s ego was not built to survive long outside of the terraria he built for himself as workplaces. The slipperiness of social media seemed to drive him what Riley called “king-crazy”. After an embarrassing photo of him being hosed down on a yacht “looking pale and blubbery” went viral in 2022, he took the weight-loss drug Ozempic and began a bizarre diet ritual of fasts interrupted by bacon cheeseburgers and cookie-dough milkshakes. Musk was the richest man in the world. As one of the co-founders of Tesla asked: “Isn’t that enough already?” What did Musk want?

The answer is banal: he wanted total control over everything around him. Isaacson describes Musk’s motivation to buy Twitter as a childhood desire to “own the playground” where he had once been bullied. It is better to see it as a desire to bring everyone into his factory and expose them to the same fear of arbitrary termination he had inspired inside his companies.

What Musk displays is less fealty to technocracy as Jonathan Taplin would have it – in the sense of subjecting decision-making to a utilitarian calculus – and more what the critic John Ganz has called “bossism”. This is a commitment to the inviolability of hierarchical chains of domination, and a revelling in the sadistic surplus of power offered by that status.

The business bookshelves groan with biographies of asshole innovators. The usual justification, which Isaacson supplies many times here as he did in his biography of Steve Jobs, is that the gains are worth the collateral suffering. “Could he have been more chill and still be the one launching us towards Mars?” he asks rhetorically. But attending to Musk’s description of his goals, we see that he is not launching “us” to Mars (unless Isaacson hopes his frequently puffy biography will win him a berth). Musk’s goal of leaving this planet “before civilisation crumbles,” as he put it as recently as April 2023, is defined by the stringent selection of a few refugees from a dying world. It is a scenario reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, favoured by Musk, or the satirical Adam McKay film Don’t Look Up.

Where Fordism and Teslaism differ most is that for Musk it has never been about a rising tide lifting all ships. It’s about a geyser of rocket fuel lifting one particular ship – literally the Starship – to take him and his (at last count) ten offspring far away from the zombies. What’s good for Tesla is good for Mars is good for the Musks. On the software billionaire Larry Ellison’s private island in Hawaii, Musk lifts his young son, X Æ A-Xii, up to a telescope and says, “Look at this, this is where you are going to live someday.”

The painful irony of Musk’s supposedly futuristic visions is they are as old as dirt. His dreams of escape keep returning him to the place he started: the yellowed cartographies of the Great Trek of the Boers into South Africa with the commandment to propagate your seed beyond the receding frontier. As Taplin makes clear in the best chapter of The End of Reality, there is no scientific reason to be on Mars. The only reason would be an overwhelming desire to be alone.

In Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, a novelist who also cultivated a dream of interplanetary travel, a character observes that, “Mars is a rock – cold, empty, almost airless, dead. Yet it’s heaven in a way. We can see it in the night sky, a whole other world, but too nearby, too close within the reach of the people who’ve made such a hell of life here on Earth.” If Musk felt more compelled to work against that hell, this would have been a different biography to read. But that would require a different man.

Elon Musk
Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, 688pp, £28

The End of Reality
Jonathan Taplin
Torva, 336pp, £22

Note: This article was originally published on 16 September. Purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from Bookshop.org, who support independent bookshops

[See also: Naomi Klein’s mirror world]

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This article appears in the 20 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

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