The world’s misplaced love for Elon Musk

Photo by Casey Gomez

Thanks to favorable media accounts portraying him as some sort of swashbuckling savior of mankind through daring entrepreneurship, Elon Musk has become a larger than life figure. Musk’s social media musings are subject to intense media coverage over even the most mundane of things, his opinions are dissected by analysts and fanboys alike and his enterprises present themselves as changing the faces of their respective industries. It is no wonder, then, that Musk maintains a popular social media presence and a devoted following — a fanbase akin to that of a pop-star rather than a tech CEO. And given Musk’s influence in industries related to popular areas of study at Tech, it would make sense to think that Musk would be as popular — if not more — on Tech’s campus. If you — yes you, person reading this editorial — consider yourself a fan of Musk, I have one simple plea for you: don’t be.

Write-ups of Musk are intoxicating in their breathless descriptions of his hard work and fantastical dreams of humanities future, dreams that Musk is attempting to create reality. What these editorials rarely highlight, however, is Musk’s exploitation of the labor of hardworking engineers and designers essentially for personal gain. Musk did not become as rich as he is without attempting to maximize profits while minimizing costs, and a key part of his success in this endeavor has been creating a culture where employees willingly undervalue their own labor. A former SpaceX employee, Josh Boehm, described frequently working 12+ hours a day and needling employees who had only worked 50-60 hours in a week, joking that they were part-timers. That same ex-employee summed up the culture with a phrase evidently used around SpaceX: “You are your own slave driver.” Boehm claims that no-one at SpaceX is forced to work these long hours — rather, the culture of the job encourages it. Musk himself openly advocates for working long hours, tweeting recently, “… nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”

The problem with this culture is that Musk is essentially spearheading a large-scale movement against one of the foundations of labor rights and is turning his fanboys, defenders and employees into soldiers against laws that are designed to protect them and the value of the labor that they provide for personal benefit. Musk and other venture capitalists frequently emphasize the importance of working long hours — as they claim to do themselves. But the reality is that as a laborer — no matter if you are flipping burgers at McDonald’s or designing spacecrafts — so long as the focus of your job is not managing labor, you are a laborer. You have no incentive to devalue yourself in such a manner.

Engineers who work sixty hours a week consistently under Musk and other tech-bros are putting their own physical and mental health on the line while underselling the true value of their labor simply because they feel that such effort is necessary to reach some pie-in-the-sky goal for some greater purpose. In reality, it is all because it is far more cost effective for Musk to create a culture where instead of having three engineers working 40 hours a week, he can have two engineers working 60 hours a week. This way, Musk receives the same amount of labor at two-thirds the cost.

Again, the three engineers working forty hours a week accomplish just as much work while facing significantly lower health risks — but Musk — who, according to Business Insider, is worth $23 billion — appears far more concerned with profit margin as opposed to taking a safer route towards obtaining his supposed goals.

Keep in mind that the typical salary for an engineer at SpaceX — $90k according to Glassdoor.com — is just $2k more than the average salary for the same position at Boeing, a rival aerospace firm without reports of such an exploitative culture and with employees that are expected to work only forty hours a week, so it is not the case that Musk’s employees are rewarded handsomely for sacrificing so much.

These workers should feel no obligation to provide surplus value just to line Musk’s pockets, but because Musk has created this charismatic culture of “work hard towards some moral goal,” his employees evidently feel completely comfortable undervaluing themselves and undermining labor relations, even though this undervaluing does not help accomplish these “bigger purpose” goals. Rather, it only serves to augment Musk’s considerable wealth through cutting costs.

And are these supposed “bigger purpose” goals truly altruistic, deserving of sacrifice? To be sure, Musk claims to have his own vision of abandoning Earth for Mars and populating the solar system. But all his work has thus far been put towards reducing cost measures — reusable spacecraft, technology for which SpaceX is at the forefront, simply serves to lower the cost of spaceflight to Musk and others, but it does not truly advance humanity’s place in the solar system — it just makes it cheaper. Perhaps Musk truly believes in himself as a charitable person, making humanity a space-faring race through his efforts. But thus far, the short-term prognosis for Musk’s work has essentially been reducing costs and making money.

Musk is a charlatan. He is every bit the ruthless venture capitalist his history says he is, but his fans take him at face value when he claims to be a “socialist” and not opposed to unions when his entire culture seeks to undermine these ideologies and institutions, institutions that protect the laborers he deliberately exploits through his enterprises. There is more to Musk than his jokes on social media, the media profiles proclaiming him as some sort of savior, or the lavish lifestyle he lives. Musk is a capitalist instrument of disruption, and with popular support — especially from those not on his payroll — he is truly dangerous.