By Pádraig O’Flynn
The news that the world’s richest man is to take control of his favourite social media network for an obscene $44 billion (€42bn) has reopened debate about who should own and control the social media platforms. While some liberals may be particularly horrified at the prospect of Musk (an odious, reactionary transphobe threatening to open the right-wing sewage sluices under the cause of ‘free speech’) taking over and replacing more ‘palatable’ billionaire owners, socialists will look at it all with a colder eye.
Who runs social media?
The fact is transphobes, racists and sexists have always been quite free to spew their bile on Twitter (and every other billionaire-owned social media platform), where their victims are more likely to be the ones being banned if they respond with impolite language. It serves the interests of the ruling elite to use social media to amp up the culture war and, thus, division among the working class.
Anyone tempted to pine for the reign of Jack Dorsey (Twitter founder) et al. should recall the longstanding connection between him, his company and the autocratic Saudi regime. This relationship may have helped grease the wheels for Saudi agents to become employed in the company and bribe another Twitter employee to access the details of about 6,000 Saudi citizens, among them anonymous dissidents, who were subsequently arrested, jailed, tortured and even murdered.
The Saudi Prince, Alwaleed bin Talal, is a longtime investor in Twitter and has now even come on board as a co-investor in Musk’s venture along with various other billionaires and funds including the Qatari sovereign wealth fund (together making up $7 billion of the $44 billion).
Strange bedfellows for a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist”.
A self-made man?
Musk, like virtually all Silicon Valley billionaires, isn’t very original when it comes to his origin story. There’s the rags-to-riches aspect (apparently in the early days of moving stateside he claims to have slept in his office and showered at the YMCA), the dropping out of college to build the start-up (he says he was doing a PhD in Stanford, but left after two days).
His playing the poor mouth is largely undercut by his Ivy League education and his father being a multi-millionaire property developer and engineer, who won contracts from the South African apartheid regime’s airforce, among others. He also owned half a Zambian emerald mine.
Additionally, pointing to a very strange character trait indeed, Elon has an overwhelming compulsion to be the founder of every company he’s ever involved in, regardless of whether he actually was or not. Contrary to his own myth-making, Musk was not involved in the founding of Tesla. Instead, he used his deep pockets to increase his shareholding in and control of the (already existing) car company to force out the actual founders. He then, laughably, legally rewrote history so that he was officially recorded as one of the founders.
Neither was he a founder of PayPal, despite further untruths to that effect. His unremarkable company, X.com, was fortunate enough to merge with the people and company that gave rise to PayPal, which was subsequently bought by Ebay for $1.5bn (making $160 million for Musk).
Before that, he had founded another tech company, Zip2, which also sold for big money during the dot-com bubble, making $22 million for Musk.
What was common to both companies was that their success came after Musk had been sidelined due apparently to being a combination of too incompetent and too obnoxious to work with. Among Musk’s preferred tactics is making wild, grandiose claims and promises that never materialise. That, and doing what basically amount to scams
He knows he can rely on a sycophantic capitalist media to do his PR for him and transmit his pronouncements to the world. When they inevitably come to nothing, he can equally rely on them to stay quiet (with a few exceptions).
According to Musk, by 2017 an autonomous Tesla vehicle would have driven itself across the US, coast to coast; he was going to land mice on Mars; there would be robot taxis by now. He’s spoken repeatedly of his plans to build a Hyperloop (a much less efficient and more elitist subway) for $6 billion. Experts put the price at €60 billion. The closest he’s gotten is building a short, pointless tunnel under Las Vegas where you can be driven slowly between convention centres by a Tesla. It makes Lyle Lanley and his ‘Monorail’ look like a good investment.
The libertarian hypocrite
The LA Times calculated that up until 2017 the total state investment in Tesla in the form of tax breaks, grants, ultra-cheap loans, regulatory credits, etc. was almost $5 billion, with further billions hoovered up since. As hard as it is to stomach for him and his cultists, without these public funds and government schemes, Tesla would definitively not exist. The largesse to corporate America doled out by the Obama administration in 2008 saved the company when it was on death’s door.
Despite being on the receiving end of this huge corporate welfare, Musk somehow summoned the chutzpah to Tweet from his soapbox against ordinary people being given another government cheque, the only thing keeping many alive in the teeth of the pandemic and lockdowns. Tesla subsequently confirmed that the company itself accepted “certain payroll benefits” from the federal government’s $600 billion 2020 pandemic stimulus!
“Whompy wheels”, combusting cars and other disasters
Road travel is a hazardous enough activity as it is without the addition of malfunctions as catastrophic as those that have bedevilled Teslas. Many of these are not just run-of-the-mill reliability issues, but appear unique to what is, according to its propagandists, the most technologically advanced cars in the world.
One of the most notorious of these issues is what one Tesla critic – a retired engineer turned “citizen activist” called Keith Leech who, in his own words, challenges “the false and exaggerated claims of ‘green’ companies cashing in on people’s environmental concerns” – termed “whompy wheels”.
Musk and his army of fanboys were enraged, and denounced him as a short seller (someone who takes a bet on a stock falling in value) and worse. However, what appears to be undeniable based on testimony from unfortunate Tesla drivers, along with the photographic evidence of hundreds of affected Teslas compiled by people like Leech, is that their wheels simply fell off.
The true extent of this scandal is unknown as Tesla reacted with an incredibly dangerous cover-up – buying victims’ silence with a replacement Tesla on condition they sign non-disclosure agreements. The (extremely light-touch) regulatory body in the US eventually instructed Tesla to end this practice, but never demanded a recall. It seems Tesla isn’t the only one who values its share price above human life.
Tesla and Musk also brazenly claimed that any talk of wheels falling off was nonsense and that any wheel detachment in the incriminating pictures was simply the result of unrelated crashes (an occurrence that’s hard to avoid when a wheel goes AWOL mid-journey).
Another infamous flaw has been the propensity for Tesla’s lithium-ion batteries to burst into flames (which can’t be quenched with water), usually following a crash (minor or otherwise). This scenario is made all the more horrifying when allied with Elon’s beloved, futuristic, retractable and all-electrical door handles, which stop working when their power source is ablaze.
Another aspect of Tesla’s technology that Musk loves nothing more than to wax lyrical or tell outright lies about is the autopilot / self-driving feature. His propaganda, which has convinced his devoted fans that the technology is able to completely replace humans, has been linked to several deaths already.
Free speech for all, except my workers, whistleblowers or critics
In March of last year, the National Labour Relations Board upheld a 2019 ruling that Tesla had illegally fired a worker involved in union organising and that Musk had illegally threatened workers with the loss of stock options if they unionised.
Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, is the only non-union plant in the U.S. operated by a major American automaker, and it shows. The factory seems, like the cars, a threat to life and limb. From workers’ testimony the atmosphere is one of deep-seated fear, akin to living under the rule of a deranged dictator. If that sounds a bit over the top, the Fremont plant has no yellow markings on the floor to safely guide pedestrians through the factory. The reason? “Elon does not like the colour yellow” – to quote the answer a safety officer received from her boss.
It turns out too many signs and the beeping noise reversing forklifts make are also not to His Lordship’s liking. Over the period 2014-2018, Tesla Fremont had three times the amount of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) violations of ten major car plants combined!
Tesla workers had been experiencing 30% above-average levels of serious injury, until 2017 when levels mysteriously dropped to near the industry average. An investigation by Reveal News uncovered the reason: in classic Elon fashion, the company had just decided to break the law and stop reporting a large swathe of serious injuries.
Who should run society
This all clearly illustrates the contempt Musk has for the workers who (along with public funds and billions worth of free PR from an army of online proselytisers and a corporate media establishment) have made this puerile buffoon and charlatan the richest man on the planet. What does it say about the society we live in that shysters like Musk and his ilk own and control the unimaginable wealth that they do ($240 billion in Musk’s case at the time of writing), while his workforce is treated with such disdain?
No one, and certainly not someone like Elon Musk, should be able to accumulate hundreds of billions of dollars, and the power and influence that goes along with it. Not only is it incredibly obscene, it is incredibly dangerous. Musk’s wealth and businesses, like that of all billionaires, should be taken into public ownership — beginning with Twitter and Tesla. Under the democratic control of the workers at the heart of these operations, and with the input of the broader working class, whatever about them is deemed useful should be put to use for the good of society.