Elon Musk is not the most reckless, destructive or dangerous corporate leader in world history. But he just might be the most reckless, destructive and dangerous corporate leader at this moment.
For the past year, as Musk destroyed Twitter from the inside and expanded the influence of his rocket-and-satellite company, SpaceX, we have read accounts of how dependent Ukraine is for military and civilian internet service on a SpaceX subsidiary called StarLink. Meanwhile, Musk’s financial debts to the sovereign investment fund of the Saudi royal family have generated significant scrutiny among policy makers and human rights advocates around the world.
There have long been major industrialists and capitalists who have had outsized influence over world affairs. The American banker JP Morgan Jr and his partners made the British and French efforts in the first world war possible with a $500m bond issue to support the British and French governments and floating cash to supply arms to both for the three years before the United States entered the war. Morgan’s various banks helped restore his sense of what the “world order” should be in the 20th century, in large part launching what would be a century-long effort to lower barriers to trade and capital flow across borders, even if that meant siding with authoritarian regimes over democratic norms.
And, of course, much of the brutal, genocidal pursuits of what became the most lucrative part of the British empire were enabled and established in south Asia by the British East India Company. The notorious Imperial British East Africa Company did the same, but often worse, in what is now Kenya and Uganda. By the 1950s the British would stave off freedom for Kenya by building concentration camps to neutralize the Kikuyu people. At the time the leaders of the British empire were at least untroubled, perhaps inspired, by Hitler’s genocidal efforts just two decades earlier.
For too long our accounts of power, persuasion, diplomacy and war have neglected the role that non-state actors like companies have played. Some companies have risen in power and influence in the world by cornering the market on some essential resource – as SpaceX has with low-altitude-internet-satellite service – or have controlled enough revenue to become the source of corrupting power that instigates a coup or props up a brutal, murderous regime, like British Petroleum did in Iran in 1953 and the United Fruit Company did in Guatemala in 1954.
It’s not outlandish to try to explain the shape of the world by the end of the 20th century as a result of the actions and interests of Morgan’s banks, US and British oil companies, and American agricultural interests.
The major countervailing forces against US and British corporate power – Hitler’s Germany, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China – were even more murderous and exploitative than the more subtle, soft and diffused power of corporate interests.
But the corporate neoliberal model prevailed over those worse models and continues to shape the world in the 21st century, with only illiberal capitalist models such as China and Russia complicating the dream of the globalized, liberal world order that Morgan had launched more than a century ago.
That dance with illiberalism, or the erasure of the distinction between the liberal and illiberal forms of capitalist-supporting democracies, is what is most alarming about Musk’s current level of influence in the world.
“Whim” is the operative word. There is no theory of Musk. He has no deep, thought-through principles and predilections. Like the most recent former president of the United States, he is subject to his own ego gratification.
As recent reports in the New York Times and the New Yorker and in Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Musk reveal, Musk is easily swayed by the seductively powerful such as Vladimir Putin and tilts his decisions toward the applause he receives from his cultish fans.
So when the whole world seemed united to help the victims of Russian aggression in Ukraine in the spring of 2022, Musk leaped in to ensure StarLink satellites could supply dependable connectivity as Russian bombs and missiles destroyed essential infrastructure across the country. But later, convinced of his own brilliance, independence and benevolence, Musk tilted to stifle Ukraine’s defense and engaged in dangerous collaborative conversations with Russian officials, perhaps including Putin himself. (Musk has denied this.)
When rich people convince themselves that they are rich because they’re smart – instead of lucky and ruthless – they tend to misapply their talents to areas far beyond their knowledge or expertise. They also tend to socialize with other elites who have myopic views of humanity. It’s the most dangerous and powerful of echo chambers. It’s the sort of arrogance that prompts the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates to “re-engineer” public education along their own ideological assumptions, without doing the hard work of studying the systems they hope to dismantle.
Musk is no JP Morgan, thank goodness. He’s also no Thucydides or George Kennan. However, as long as we allow essential public, intelligence and military systems to be outsourced and controlled by private actors, we risk having lives destroyed and hopes of a better future dashed by the whims of an unstable egomaniac. It could be Musk. It could be someone far more competent and capable next time.
We should take this moment as a warning, and consider better models for accountable power across the democratic nations of the world.
Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. He is also a Guardian US columnist