The Martian Chronic; or, the Space Pharaoh Elon Musk

1. I bet you think this song is about Musk

“Elon Musk” is known to most people on the basis that he is astonishingly wealthy. Unlike the similarly astonishingly wealthy Jeff Bezos, almost nobody you know uses Musk’s products on a day-to-day basis – unless you occupy a particular demographic. Most people on the street will recognise his name, but not be able to tell you much about what he does – once again, unless you occupy a particular demographic. To those who are in that demographic, Musk is a polarising figure who tends to attract extreme opinions in a way that, say, Bernard Arnault does not.

Musk’s advocates are usually baffled by anybody who criticises him. Their argument is simple: regardless of Musk’s personal qualities (which they acknowledge are questionable), his professional achievements are staggering both in terms of commercial success and civilisational impact. They will explain the role that Tesla has played in the transition to electric vehicles, and thus in the energy transition we need to mitigate climate change; they will explain the role that SpaceX has played in opening up the frontier of space; they will point to the huge potential of OpenAI for safeguarding civilisation and NeuraLink for improving human lives; and they will try to avoid talking about the Boring Company.

This is “Elon Musk” the public figure, and everything his advocates say about him is true. One of his advocates groups criticisms of Musk into three categories: the urbanist (his solutions don’t actually solve the real problems), the socialist (he’s an arch-capitalist which is bad in itself), and the moralist (his professional successes are are not solely his to claim, and his personal behaviour is atrocious). This seems broadly accurate to me, and all these criticisms are valid, but I tend to agree with Musk’s defenders that none of those criticisms are worth a damn when balanced against his achievements.

And yet still I have a thorn in my shoe which will not let me leave it there; and that thorn is power.

2. … whereas in fact it is of course all about Power

In a recent TED interview, Chris Anderson asked Musk how he thinks about philanthropy, and Musk answers:

If you care about the reality of goodness, instead of the perception of it, philanthropy is extremely difficult. SpaceX, Tesla, NeuraLink, The Boring Company are philanthropy. If you say philanthropy is love of humanity, they are philanthropy. Tesla is accelerating sustainable energy; this is a love of humanity. SpaceX is trying to ensure the long-term survival of humanity as a multi-planet species… NeuraLink is to help solve brain injuries and existential risk with AI – love of humanity. Boring Company is trying to solve traffic, which is hell for most people, and that also is love of humanity.

This of course is not what Chris Anderson meant, and it’s not what people mean when they use the word “philanthropy”, but that’s fine; I’m not a huge fan of “philanthropy” myself, being more of a fan of solidarity. If we take Musk’s answer at face value, then, it’s more interesting for revealing his belief: that his business interests are in the best interests of humanity. 

He can make that case given the nature of his business interests – but what if his business interests were slightly different? What if – for example – he believed that transhumanism was so vital to ensure the future of humanity that his business interests involved genetic experimentation on humans? Or if he believed that large-scale geo-engineering was vital to ensure the future of humanity, and his business interests involved unilaterally experimenting on the global climate?

Unlike drilling tunnels under Las Vegas, genetic experimentation and geoengineering are not so obviously in the interests of humanity. Anybody can believe that their work is in the best interests of humanity, but that belief is not in itself proof that their work is, in fact, in the best interests of humanity. The point here is not to argue that Musk’s business interests are the equivalent of engineering Moreau-style chimerae, but that the principled basis on which one might defend those business interests has a serious flaw.

A billionaire’s belief that they are essential is not sufficient for us to grant them licence to pursue those business interests. Those business interests represent his own interests – both philosophically and commercially – and those interests are in the service of his specific vision for the future of humanity. Humanity, of course, has not been consulted about this future; his wealth forces his vision upon the whole world.

Of course; that’s what having power means.

3. We Care A Lot

Wealth buys power. There are different types of power, wealth is not the only thing that gets you power, and power is always constrained; but the more wealth you have, the more power you exercise. It stands to reason, then, that the most wealthy man in the world is one of the most powerful. Power in this case translates into reshaping the world to fit his own vision of it. And if we don’t like that vision? Tough luck. We’re not the ones with the power. In a democratic world, we would actually have these conversations vigorously; in the actual world, conversations about these are anaemic at best, and meanwhile the super-wealthy simply go ahead with their plans.

I’m one of those people who doesn’t buy wholesale into Musk’s plans. I’m net-negative on colonising Mars; I don’t value a multi-planetary civilisation on the philosophical or aesthetic grounds that Musk advocates do. I think “AI” is already one of the greatest mistakes that civilisation has made, and pouring the accelerant of capitalism onto that endeavour is going to make climate change look like childs’ play. I would prefer to phase out private vehicle ownership rather than continue to build our societies around cars; but I’m all in for the energy transition, and given the actual society we live in, electric cars are a good thing.

By framing his companies as being philanthropic – for the love of humanity – Musk enables his advocates to dismiss criticism of him as being misanthropic. Yet this is clearly a rhetorical move, and a weak one at that; while I recognise that mine are marginal positions, the important point is that none of those positions mean that I hate humanity. I can agree with overall goals such as making a successful energy transition in general without agreeing with a specific approach to that transition. Musk’s huge achievements, by and large, do not all lead to my vision of a better future. They lead to Musk’s vision of a better future.

4. This Land is Your Land, but mainly it’s His Land

Musk has a radical vision for the technological future that appeals to a lot of people; his vision for the political future is equally radical but would appeal to a lot less people if he was more explicit about it. To some extent his political commitments are instrumental – like most good capitalists, he’ll support whoever is going to make him more money, and so in the past has donated to any party that looks like they might have power to constrain him – which is in line with his overall vibe of “utilitarian libertarian”. Like most libertarians, however, if you scratch the surface there’s something which doesn’t look much like freedom at all.

The colonisation of Mars is where we see this most clearly. The Mars colony would be serviced entirely by SpaceX; it’s hard to imagine that Musk would allow anybody else to transport there, since it would cut into profits considerably. Transport infrastructure on Mars would also be provided by SpaceX; my suspicion is that the Boring Company is a piece of the Mars puzzle, not the Earth puzzle. Transport on Mars couldn’t be petrol-based because it would be ridiculous to transport, so it would be solar-electric; and travel on the surface would be more difficult than sub-surface transport. StarLink also makes more sense as a Martian comms network than an Earth comms network, and so communications infrastructure would also be owned by a Musk company. You would be living on Musk’s world.

What would that world look like? Musk thinks that the Mars colony should make its own laws through direct democracy, which sounds fine until you remember that all of the people living in that colony will have been through a selection process overseen by Elon Musk and would be literally dependent on infrastructure provided by Elon Musk. We also know that Musk is deeply opposed to other expressions of collective political action like unionising, and is a free speech absolutist except for when it might damage his business interests. We also know that, in the early stages of colonisation at least, Mars will be a death trap, and any colony will need to be run with almost military discipline to ensure the whole thing doesn’t collapse.

If this thought experiment sounds appealing to you, then I wish you all the best in your new life on Mars, but hopefully you recognise that Musk’s vision of a better future is something you’ll have to buy, not something you’ll get to build.

5. Space Pharaohs are not our Future 

If you take that vision and apply it not to Mars, but to Earth, it doesn’t seem like a good way to run a society, unless you want a society of two hundred space pharaohs and six billion slaves. It’s definitely not the kind of society I want to live in; it seems like the kind of society that we’ve been trying to claw our way out of for a long time, a society that would absolutely not lead to individual or collective flourishing. Maybe you disagree; maybe you think it’s just an unfortunate but temporary stepping stone to our glorious multi-planetary future, and sure – we can discuss that, but it’s still accepting that stepping stone is more likely to step on you.

Here’s the wrong way to read this situation, courtesy of Slate Star Codex reviewing Edward Teach’s Sadly, Porn:

In a very charitable reading, perhaps socialists are sad that Elon Musk has $300 billion because they’re imagining how many bowls of soup that could provide for the hungry. Or because they think he’s guilty of exploitation, and are sad this has paid off. Needless to say, this is not how Teach thinks of it; he suspects socialists (and lots of other people besides) would gladly see Elon Musk reduced to penury if it never helped a single soul, or even if it actively made the poor poorer.

Politics is not about how we pay for things, but how we organise things. Perhaps socialists – and non-socialists! – are sad because they have a specific vision of a better world that is not fixated on the sort of technological fixes that Musk promotes, and focuses more on the fact that he represents how much has gone wrong with the social technology that – in the end – is far more critical for our success as a civilisation.

Thus Musk the public figure embodies two separate but related problems: the failure of our social technology which has created figures like Musk, and enabled them to begin imposing their vision on the future with almost no accountability; and the tendency of those Musk-like figures to envision a future which almost certainly leads to a political dystopia. 

Presumably people who advocate for Elon Musk do not believe that the rest of us should give up working on ensuring that human civilisation does not fall to the climate crisis, simply because Musk is on the case; certainly Musk doesn’t believe that. By the same token I would also hope that they do not believe that the rest of us should give up working on ensuring that human civilisation does not fall to two hundred space pharaohs, simply because Musk is on that case as well.

Do I dislike Elon Musk the person? Sure. He seems like a sad and damaged man whose company I would not enjoy for an extended period. But hopefully it’s now clear that my personal feelings towards a man that I have never met has nothing to do with the reason why I don’t like what he represents – “Elon Musk”. My belief is that the more power somebody possesses – in this case, the more wealth they possess – the greater the checks on that power should be. Unfortunately for me, that’s the exact opposite of the world we live in.

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