It used to be cocaine, which, as Robin Williams had it, was God’s way of telling you that you have too much money. Now he’s buying Twitter for $44 billion and setting it on fire.
But maybe there is some continuity here. Both drugs enhance the sense of invincibility you feel while you make a complete fool of yourself.
Elon Musk has established himself as the brainiac of our time, half genius, all man-child. Still, in the process, he illuminated two important truths about modern culture.
The first is that there really is such a thing as having too much money. Right-wing economics is based on the belief that the super-rich will ultimately use their vast wealth for the common good. Musk seems to have set out to disprove this thesis with a spectacular display of wasteful excess wealth.
We live in an age of grotesque inequality, when a small number of people have thrown away an enormous amount of their wealth. We are no longer talking about the top 1 percent or the 0.1 percent. Or even the top 0.01 percent.
Musk, rather, belongs to the top 0.001 percent in the US. That’s 2,400 people who between them had (in 2016, the last year for which such detailed calculations are available) $1,631,821,000.
The theory is that these are the “wealth creators” whose amassing astronomical fortunes somehow benefit all of humanity. They are the Medicis or Carnegies of our time.
Agent Musk, supposedly on behalf of the global communist conspiracy, has set out to detonate such notions. Because he has shown, like a global version of our own Sean Quinn, that there is a level of accumulation beyond which “wealth creators” become wealth destroyers.
It may be true that up to a point the profit motive drives innovation. But profit is getting boring. Too much of it leads to satiety and satiety.
A much more powerful and primitive force prevails: megalomania. Beyond the satisfaction of basic needs, beyond security and comfort, there is the quest for status, the need to be number one.
And this drive is unlimited. The manic ego knows no bounds. His hunger for dominance is insatiable. Finally, it takes the form of the ouroboros, the ancient symbol of the serpent eating its own tail.
It becomes destructive even with a very narrow amount of money. Not only has Musk managed to burn through his own investment in Twitter, but he’s seen the value of his parent company, Tesla, drop by half.
Tesla’s top 10 investors alone have lost $133 billion since Twitter’s board approved Musk’s buyout decision in April. They must surely understand that even for lovers of rampant capitalism, the madness caused by excess wealth corrodes the very thing it seeks.
We also have Musk to thank for debunking the myth of commitment to free speech. His fairy-tale transformations from self-proclaimed “free speech absolute” to snowflake authoritarian censor are an early Christmas panto this season, with the entire Twittersphere calling out: “Oh no, he’s not.”
It has long been obvious that the commitment to free expression is largely one-sided. I have absolute freedom to say what I like, but if you answer, you are oppressing me. To the over-privileged (and yes, they’re still almost all rich white men), “free speech” really means “Shut up and listen to me.”
However, no one managed to make this point as clear and memorable as Agent Musk. What he got for his $44 billion was a big red card to wave at his enemies and rivals and send them off the field.
Allegedly, he was jealous of referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz, who received 15 yellow cards in the Argentina-Netherlands match of the world championship. Musk had to prove he could be a more ridiculous fighter. It didn’t seem to occur to him that if he kept sending people away, no one would be left to play the game.
Musk has banned an account that uses public information to track his private jet and Russian oligarchs. He then banned journalists, some (like Donnie O’Sullivan) more or less at random, some (like Lynette Lopez) because they reported critically on his business practices. He then banned links to rival social media platform Mastodon.
This is rampant capitalism. Any notion of turning Twitter into a profitable business is a long way from Musk’s momentary complacency of expelling the brazen and the brazen from the perfect realm of digital Freedonia.
Rampant egomania is not creativity. It is not even, in the jargon of neoliberalism, creative destruction. It is simply destruction.
A (not unfounded) criticism of Twitter has been that it is an echo chamber. However, in Greek myth, Echo was eventually destroyed by Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection. By the end of the story, the reaction and the narcissist have both withered and died.
Musk has provided 21st century rampant capitalism with its own moral narrative of self-destruction. The narcissism that comes from excessive wealth kills what he loves most: himself.