Last modified on Sat 20 Mar 2021 10.29 GMT
Elon Musk has declared himself Technoking of Tesla. It’s a fitting title for a man with feudal aspirations. He already has a history of poor labor practices, and generally displays a vast amount of hubris relative to his own actual personal productivity. He is no doubt an excellent businessman – and showman – but remains greatly undeserving of the cult of personality that surrounds his alleged genius. In reality Musk is an egotistical demagogue who has amassed too much power, and poses a danger to the future of workers.
Musk lives in an alternate reality of relentless self-branding and self-congratulation. He promised – and then failed – to deliver 1,000 ventilators to the state of California at the beginning of the pandemic. He also volunteered to design a miniature submarine for the purpose of rescuing 12 children trapped in an underground cave in Thailand, only to be bested by a cave diver who actually knew what he was doing – a diver whom Musk then insinuated was a pedophile. Musk has a touchy ego, and that itself would be a problem even if he wasn’t as wealthy as he is.
Musk is the world’s second richest man, an inherently unethical title given the level of global income inequality. Capitalism, at its core, requires a workforce of poor people or slaves to do back- and brain-breaking labor to maintain the wealth of those at the top. Musk’s wealth is no different. In 2019, the human rights group International Rights Advocates sued Tesla and other companies, alleging that they profited from dangerous and sometimes deadly child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Tesla, like most other major technology companies, relies on cobalt for its lithium batteries, and the majority of that cobalt comes from mines in Congo. While Tesla is in the process of reforming its practices, it only formalized its commitment a year after the lawsuit, and after doubling down on cobalt mining by entering a long-term deal with Glencore, the largest cobalt mining company on Earth. This commitment seems odd since Musk in 2018 claimed that he was moving towards eliminating cobalt from Tesla vehicles completely.
If Musk is truly concerned about the plight of workers, it doesn’t show in how he treats the workers he has direct control over. In 2019, a California judge found that Musk violated labor law by wrongfully firing a worker for trying to unionize and by tweeting that workers who did unionize would have to give up valuable company stock options. In the same series of tweets, Musk went on to criticize the United Auto Workers union and claimed that it did nothing for job security during the last recession. In 2016, workers were warned they could be fired for trying to join the UAW; in a Medium post, an employee, Jose Moran, claimed workers were being injured and made to work long hours on unsafe machinery. This echoed a report that found that one factory alone had seen more than 100 ambulance calls over workers experiencing chest pains, seizures, and fainting spells. According to reporting by the Guardian, hundreds more calls were made for “injuries and other medical issues”. Musk responded by claiming he cared for his workers and that Tesla’s factory safety record was improving.
This of course runs in contradiction with how many of his workers were treated this past year in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. In early 2020, Alameda county, the location of the aforementioned Tesla factory, ordered businesses to shut down for the safety of their workers. Musk – who had already been critical of shelter-in-place orders, comparing them to fascism – refused to comply with the order and reopened his factory. Tesla called and texted employees asking them to return to work; some employees told Business Insider that they were afraid they might lose their jobs if they refused. One worker, speaking anonymously, said, “They’re more concerned about profitability than they are about us.”
Musk sued Alameda county and eventually got a compromise that allowed him to maintain the reopenings before dropping the lawsuit. Within seven months of reopening, according to the Washington Post, some 450 workers at the factory tested positive, a rate higher than the rest of Alameda county.
Musk’s view of workers and his relationship to government can be seen in his goals for the future. Musk has been touted as a visionary for his dedication to space exploration and his desire to – using the most apt term – colonize Mars. Musk’s work towards space exploration is only necessary, if you can call it that, because of the deprioritization of Nasa relative to the rest of the federal budget and its defunding since the late 1960s. The United States would have plenty more funding for experimental rockets if billionaires like Musk weren’t constantly gaming the tax system like he did by moving to Texas to potentially avoid income and capital gains taxes. He’d long threatened this move from his California home, using it as ammunition against the state in his fight against the closing of his Alameda factory. Musk hopes to use as much of his money as possible to colonize Mars; he has said he wants to privately transport a million people to the red planet by 2050, offering loans to workers who can then pay them off with labor once they arrive on the planet. This, of course, sounds a lot like indentured servitude. A fitting aspiration for the Technoking of Tesla.
While the real fault with Musk lies in a system that allows individuals to acquire such vast amounts of wealth and use it to control the present and the future, his brand of egotism is particularly dangerous. The public needs to be in control of its own destiny and cannot afford to rely on people like Musk to take us to space or determine the future of labor. Humans have spent the last few centuries overthrowing monarchies and fiefdoms; it would be unwise to let a new, egotistical few lord over us.
Akin Olla is a Nigerian-American political strategist and organizer. He is the host of This is the Revolution Podcast