Elon Musk vs. the government: the empty promises of technological utopianism
In recent years, billionaire Elon Musk has been heralded by his fans as a visionary who is ready to selflessly bring about the future. However, Musk’s engagement with the topic of government intervention shows his propositions are based more on self-interest rather than any sort of well-intentioned idealism.
Elon Musk: Visionary or villain?
Elon Musk: it’s hard to not hear about him. In recent years, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX has routinely made the news. To his fans, he is a visionary on the road to creating a better future for all—a future with environmentally friendly cars and interplanetary travel. It is not hard to see how adored he is by his loyal following: look at comments of nearly any YouTube video about him to see an army of fans praising him.
Some even go as far as portraying him as a real-life Tony Stark, the well-known fictional entrepreneur and action hero of Marvel fandom.
However, Musk is not above controversy by any definition of the word. He has been described as a loose cannon, deliberately causing the market value of Tesla to plummet with his Tweets (Mola, 2021). On top of that, he has set up a number of infrastructure-related projects with highly questionable efficiency and societal value, like the Las Vegas Loop (Brandon, 2021). In essence, it is a subway system that uses individual Tesla cars to transport people instead of using considerably more efficient subway trains.
The Californian Ideology
As it turns out, Musk falls into the tradition of the so-called Californian Ideology. In essence, the Californian Ideology is a fusion of the culture of the hippies of the 1960s and the entrepreneurial mindset of the yuppies (Barbrook & Cameron, 1995). It holds that the utopia the hippies once hoped for will be brought about by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in a new digital era where everyone has access to the internet and life will be technologically transformed for the better, creating a digital utopia.
The Californian Ideology is a fusion of the culture of the hippies of the 1960s and the entrepreneurial mindset of the yuppies
While all of this might sound nice to some, the Californian Ideology is also an ideology of contradictions. While the hippies were passionate about fighting racism and poverty, the Californian Ideology turns a blind eye to these problems in practice. Instead, it incorporates a heavy dose of free-market capitalism. It’s no surprise, then, that the heralds of the Californian Ideology like the magazine Wired have parroted views toted by far-right politicians like Newt Gingrich (Barbrook & Cameron, 1995). How could a hippie-inspired digital utopia have anything even remotely in common with the ideals of the far-right? The truth is that this is inherent to the Californian Ideology: as an amalgamation of two completely different ideologies, it is laden with what are essentially unsolvable contradictions.
As an eccentric tech entrepreneur, Musk seems like a perfect fit for the Californian Ideology. On the one hand, he extols the values of minimal government interference—“I’m generally a fan of, like, minimal government interference in the economy” (Musk, 2013a, 56:02)—while on the other hand he presents his work and his companies as essential components of the coming revolutionization of transport and space travel—“[M]aking life multiplanetary . . . is the goal of SpaceX” (Musk, 2021b). In other words, Musk claims to be doing exactly what the Californian Ideology says the technological entrepreneur of the digital age is supposed to be doing.
Before going any further, it is important to ask ourselves the question of how ideologies even work in the first place. Roughly, we can distinguish two different types of ideology (Blommaert, 2005). Firstly, there are the so-called particular ideologies. Essentially, these are ideologies as we are used to talking about them: sets of ideas held by individuals. Things like socialism, liberalism, and Trumpism fall under this umbrella. The second form, the total ideology, is a bit different. The total ideology is the ideology that forms the (essentially invisible) framework of our society on which a lot of our assumptions about how the world works are sometimes nearly automatically based. It is the ideology that is least challenged. In our case, that is capitalism.
I would argue that the Californian Ideology, fits both categories. It is clear that, even though they might not use the same “Californian Ideology,” many would characterize their personal views in the same way—pro-market in terms of how to steer and promote technological advancement in society. Conversely, the Californian Ideology is largely a part of the total ideology of our society—how many times have you heard politicians say that the best way to, for example to fight climate change, is to fund tech start-ups that specialize in mitigating some aspect of that issue?
Connecting this back to Elon Musk leaves us with a few questions. As someone who fits perfectly into the mold of the Californian Ideology tech entrepreneur, how does Musk engage with the topic of government interference in the economy? As he engages with this topic, how does this reveal his ideological inclinations toward the topic and his personal role in it? Tying that back into the bigger picture, what does this mean for how the Californian Ideology manifests itself in the real world?
Over the course of this article, I will explore these questions by analyzing the discourse that Musk has produced on the topic. When analyzing discourse for the purpose of discovering ideological meaning, it is important to vary sources both horizontally and vertically (Verschueren, 2013). Horizontal variation refers to the fact that we need to vary our sources in order to reach more valid claims. For that purpose, we will first look at Musks tweets, and second at statements he has made in interviews. Vertical variation refers to what we will be looking at within those sources. We will not be limiting ourselves to one aspect of Elon Musk’s produced discourse. Instead, we will be focusing not only on word choice, but on the implications that he makes, how he seems to interact with people, and how he might engage in argumentation. All of those factors combined should provide us with the analytical tools we need in order to gain valid insight into Musk’s discourse.
When it comes to getting a better picture of the Elon Musk discourse, there is no better place to start than his Twitter account. Here, he has posted nearly 16,000 tweets, containing anything from advertisements and promotions for his companies, to his political opinions and views on the world. To get a well-rounded picture of his views, I have analyzed elements of two of Musk’s interviews (Musk (2013a) and Musk (2016)), in which he discusses his takes on how the government should interact with economic activity.
Musk does not hide his stance on government interference. In a tweet from September 2021, in response tomoving the Tesla headquarters from California to Texas, Musk tweeted that “In general, I believe government should rarely impose its will upon the people, and, when doing so, should aspire to maximize their cumulative happiness” (Musk, 2021d). By saying this, Musk clearly takes a position that favors minimal government interference, something which became apparent in the 2013 interview: “I’m generally a fan of, like, minimal government interference in the economy, like, the government should be kind of a referee but not the player and there should not be too many referees” (Musk, 2013a, 56:02). It is clear that he feels the government should have a minimal role in society, but how does he explain his reasons for feeling this way?
Perhaps not completely surprisingly is that this is where the first of many contradictions comes into play. Musk attempts to characterize the government as malicious and powerful but also as well-intentioned and incapable. In a tweet from 2020, he calls the government “just a monopolist corporation” (Musk, 2020c), which sketches an image of a powerful organization hiding its true nature. Seeing as Musk has, in the past expressed his dislike of monopolies, this implies that the government is without merit and does not use its powers for good.
Musk attempts to characterize the government as malicious and powerful but also as well-intentioned and incapable
However, in the 2016 interview, he says: “If a president could make the economy great, and there was a button they could press, they would be pressing that button at the speed of light” (Musk, 2016, 48:42). This implies that the president of the United States, and, by extension, the US government, might want to improve the economy but are simply unable to. This is a far cry from the negative picture he paints of the government in his tweet. In no way does this imply any sort of malicious intent on the government’s part. Furthermore, what he says after portrays the government as a necessary institution: “And it seems, like, logical that you should tax things that are most likely to be bad” (Musk, 2013a, 57:09). Suddenly, he supports the institution he has also described as “just another monopolist corporation” in raising taxes, which could affect anyone. Normally, these views would present an either/or dilemma, but seemingly not to Elon Musk.
Staying on the topic of taxation, Elon seems to be a strong believer in taxing “bad things,” as he puts it in the interview. “Given that there is a need to gather tax for the, uhm, you know, to pay for the federal government, we should shift the tax burden to bad things and then adjust that tax of that bad thing according to whatever is going to result in the behavior that we think is beneficial for the future” (Musk, 2013a, 57:38). Clearly, the fact that he says shifting is necessary means he feels that the way the tax system currently works is not optimal. This opinion is replicated in his tweets: “There should be a constitutional amendment to redo the tax code every ten years, just like we do a census” (Musk, 2013b). An important question remains: while Musk keeps talking about “good” and “bad,” what is good and bad, and who gets to decide?
Musk certainly seems to have an answer to this question: if it is up to him, the government should instate a carbon tax. “It is high time there was a carbon tax!” (Musk, 2021a). Seems like a noble goal, right? After all, it seems logical that a tax on carbon emissions disincentivizes carbon emission. However, the problem is that this is practically all that Musk wants the government to do. “A carbon tax is needed to correct the unpriced externality & market will do the rest” (Musk, 2020a). But what is “the rest”? Seemingly, that would be ending carbon emissions and the resultant increasing global warming. However, do taxes actually work like this? How about taxes on alcohol and cigarettes? Sure, they have helped decrease the consumption of these goods, but they certainly have not stopped their consumption at all, something which eventually is necessary for carbon emissions. Interestingly, Musk is aware of this. “That’s why we tax cigarettes and alcohol, because those are probably bad for you” (Musk, 2013a, 57:16). So if a carbon tax is so important so as to be the only solution, even if it is far from perfect, why would he support it? While this might seem odd, if you take into consideration that Musk, as the owner of an electric car company, stands to profit personally from the institution of a carbon tax, regardless of whether it has any positive influence on the world.
Musk, as the owner of an electric car company, stands to profit personally from the institution of a carbon tax, regardless of whether it has any positive influence on the world
This self-serving attitude to government intervention is present everywhere in the justification of his opinions. This becomes apparent in how he discusses the topic of government support for corporations. He opposed one of the COVID-19 stimulus packages created by the US government to stimulate the economy: “Another government stimulus package is not in the best interests of the people imo” (Musk, 2020b). By saying “the interests of the people,” he directly ties minimal government intervention and the interest of the people together: a government that does not interfere in the economy with stimulus packages is a government that acts in the best interest of the people.
Interestingly, when it comes to the government supporting Tesla, Musk’s rhetoric shifts noticeably. Firstly, when it comes to government contracts for one of his companies, he is very positive. When talking about winning a $1.5 billion contract, he says: “Just want to say thanks to those in government who fight hard for the right thing to happen, despite extreme pressure to do otherwise. Therein lies the core goodness of the American state” (Musk, 2021c). Remarkably, Musk goes completely overboard in lauding those in the government helping him win the contract, and it is here we see how he truly defines “good” and “bad”: Those who support him SpaceX “the core goodness of the American state” (also implying such a core goodness even exists, which is striking considering his stance on government), while those that did not wish to see him win the contract have exacted “extreme pressure” to prevent that good thing from happening, making them “bad,” in essence.
This conception of good vs. bad seems to carry over to his stance on foreign governments as well. As a minimal government enthusiast, there are few governments that Musk should dislike as much as the government of China. Is this actually the case? When talking about China’s stance on Tesla, he said “Yes, support of the Chinese government is very much appreciated” (Musk, 2019). However, when talking about expanding the operations of Tesla to India, he said: “Would love to be in India. Some challenging government regulations, unfortunately” (Musk, 2018). When it comes to non-US governments, then, he does not seem to care about the ideological stances of these governments, only really giving any consideration to the regulations they impose on Tesla.
This ties back into government support for Tesla in an interesting way. “In discussions with the government of India requesting temporary relief on import penalties/restrictions until a local factory is built” (Musk, 2017). Here he clearly says that he will consider conducting business in India if Tesla is provided with economic support from the government. This once again shows how his stance on governments has much more to do with support for his companies and much less to do with what he claims to be his political views on government interference.
His stance on governments has much more to do with support for his companies and much less to do with what he claims to be his political views on government interference.
How he places himself and the government in relation to “the people” also says a lot about his discourse around government intervention. Take the following quote: “In general, I believe government should rarely impose its will upon the people, and, when doing so, should aspire to maximize their cumulative happiness” (Musk, 2021d). This clearly creates a separation between “the government” and “the people,” implying that the government is thus not a democratic institution. However, when he talks about the necessity for a carbon tax, this distinction disappears. “That’s why we tax cigarettes and alcohol, because those are probably bad for you” (Musk, 2013a, 57:16). Suddenly, now that he wants the government to enact a policy in his favor, he says that “we” tax certain things. Seeing as Elon is explaining his views in an interview, meant for public consumption, this “we” unites the government, the people, and Musk himself. Essentially, Musk employs the existence of a gap between the people and the government whenever distance from the government is in his best interest, using it as a tool to create distance, implicitly trying to draw “the people” closer to his side.
But how exactly do people engage with him expressing his political views? Do they accept his views, including the contradictions that can be found in them? As was visible before, some people seem to adore his ideas. However, others do not. For example, one reply to Musk’s tweet about not wanting another stimulus package is: “Go fuck yourself, Elon.” These replies to his tweets are widespread.
Interestingly, some proponents of Musk have taken upon themselves to defend him. One reply to the previous tweet is “Work a week as hard as @elonmusk does and see what you produce. I bet you create no jobs, have no good ideas, and do 0 to help the economy and/or environment.” This tweet falls into a type of theme—many defenses of Musk boil down to claiming that Musk is able to achieve more, ignoring the fact that Musk, as one of the richest people on earth, has vast resources at his disposal. Many of these tweets devolve into vicious arguments, as is visible above. In any case, Musk’s statements manage to rile up strong emotions, both negative and positive.
Contradictions, or more?
But what exactly does all of this tell us? By using rhetoric associated with minimal government intervention he certainly puts himself in the light of the ideal Californian Ideology-inspired tech entrepreneur. He doesn’t shy away from portraying the US government as an unwarranted monopoly infringing on the freedom of “the people.” Other governments, too, play a role in hampering advancement according to him, as they are all that stands between the people and something like a new Tesla factory. However, as soon as any sort of government intervention stands to benefit him or his companies, his rhetoric shifts noticeably, he hides the fact that he is getting government support, while also defending the government’s right to do so. One moment, the government is the issue. The next, it’s the solution. From Elon’s perspective, it’s government support for me, but not for thee. However, throughout all of this, he keeps wearing the mantle of the Californian Ideology, always insisting on the importance of the free market and its role in propelling technological progress.
Moreever, is Elon’s behavior really that strange when taking into consideration the contradictions inherent to the Californian Ideology itself? Does it not make its adherents act this way? The free-market component places personal gain above anything else, so is it any surprise that Elon does put his own need over what digital utopianism might expect from him? What this implies, though, is that, deep down, the Californian Ideology is nothing more than a pro-capitalist ideology with a thin veneer of technological advancement. While some seem to see through this, others still leap to his defense, making his discursive strategy at least somewhat successful.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has turned out that the way Musk engages with the topic of government interference in the economy is mostly self-serving, even if it does try to maintain a technologically progressive aesthetic. Yet, some still support the eccentric billionaire. While his imperfect embodiment of the Californian Ideology is not necessarily as coherent, it is still successful in capturing the minds of those longing for a new society founded on technological progress.
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Musk, E. [@elonmusk]. (2018, May 30). Would love to be in India. Some challenging government regulations, unfortunately. Deepak Ahuja, our CFO, is from India. Tesla will [Tweet]. Twitter.
Musk, E. [@elonmusk]. (2019, January 3). Yes, support of the Chinese government is very much appreciated [Tweet]. Twitter.
Musk, E. [@elonmusk]. (2020a, June 25). Exactly! A carbon tax is needed to correct the unpriced externality & market will do the rest. The consequences of [Tweet]. Twitter.
Musk, E. [@elonmusk]. (2020b, July 24). Another government stimulus package is not in the best interests of the people imo [Tweet]. Twitter.
Musk, E. [@elonmusk]. (2020c, July 29). What he doesn’t appear to appreciate is that government is just a monopolist corporation in the limit [Tweet]. Twitter.
Musk, E. [@elonmusk]. (2021a, May 13). It is high time there was a carbon tax! [Tweet]. Twitter.
Musk, E. [@elonmusk]. (2021b, July 1). Now, this sort of nonsense happens all the time with government contracts & everyone knows it. However, in this case [Tweet]. Twitter.
Musk, E. [@elonmusk]. (2021c, August 4). Just want to say thanks to those in government who fight hard for the right thing to happen, despite extreme pressure [Tweet]. Twitter.
Musk, E. [@elonmusk]. (2021d, September 2). In general, I believe government should rarely impose its will upon the people, and, when doing so, should aspire to [Tweet]. Twitter.
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