The monopolist: Elon Musk’s delicate balancing act

First published on 31 October 2022.

It is often said that Elon Musk is reckless. Is he? Middle-class people sometimes claim it’s strange to ‘Tweet’ if you are that famous. Isn’t all the online advice to avoid controversy — to stick to the party line? Even get-rich-quick schemes maintain controversy is the fastest way to poverty. Is it?

Mr. Musk: Hero of whom?

Elon Musk is a counterexample of gargantuan proportions. He has used his considerable economic power to purchase cultural influence through the acquisition of Twitter. But he in turn seeks to leverage this new-found influence to boost his market power. He realises he must try to win by being reckless. He knows what he must do. He must maintain the appearance of legitimacy while expanding the reality of his power. These two reinforce each other. If he loses one, he loses the other. Does he?

Sometimes you need to become notorious to get anything done at all. Sometimes you have to rip up the rule book and start again. Then you realise what you forgot in a whole new way. Then you start again, and again, and again. The new generation of public actors seek to remake the world by shaking it up, which will in turn shake up their careers. It is high risk, high reward. It is a political investment in an unstable asset: fame — and, from fame, fortune.

Donald Trump, Kanye West, and Elon Musk each know the value of this kind of deal. They know they have to go further than anyone else to make any difference at all. Musk couldn’t easily back down in his business ventures and he can’t easily back down from his political ambitions. He can, but it is not easy. And it may be wise to keep going for as long as he can.

It may be said that I should not congratulate the new right-wing for its insurgency and rhetoric. But it is not right-wing in the simple sense of the term. It is more akin to Caesarism in the late Roman Republic, when generals promised land reform of the kind promised to the people by the brothers Gracchi before their execution by the Senate. The Caesar figures, so it is said, recklessly prefer war and redistribution to go hand in hand. They use their personal wealth and political power to change the distribution of wealth and power in society as a whole.

Such material questions seem distant from today’s world, consumed by culture war. But it remains the case that all power arises, first and foremost, from the people. All powers must reckon with the sleeping sovereignty of the masses, lest they fall prey to tyrannical elitism. Populism has its own vices, but it is a tool like no other. In the wrong hands it is dangerous. In the right hands it is possibly what we need to right the ship of political economy and bring peace to a troubled world, synergising the old dichotomy of security and liberty, so that all may bask in the light of freedom. Shall we begin?

Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?

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