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Translation by AB – November 26, 2022
We decided to translate this article, published in May 2020, on the occasion of the eventful takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk. This move indeed reveals all the traits of this “special” character that we were trying to understand.
The title « Elon Musk, special vassal » is the simplest translation of the French title « Elon Musk, vassal spécial ». It is a bit strange in English but in French, there is a little wordplay : « vaisseau spatial », which pronunciation is very close to « vassal spécial », means « spaceship ». Unfortunately, we could not find any such wordplay in English.
To paint a picture of Elon Musk is to paint a picture of Us … Musk would be nobody without what we are accepting, calling for, desiring… and just being.
Us: in the starry skies… Knight Moves
On this April 23, on a warm evening, there was a rather unusual sight in the sky: a train of stars spinning in slow motion. SpaceX, one of Elon Musk’s companies, had launched 60 satellites of the Starlink constellation (Emergence of a digital natural environment). The ballet lasted a good five minutes, and we were overwhelmed by the first real physical sensation of the digital natural environment. The 400 to 500 Starlink satellites already in orbit will be joined by thousands, even tens of thousands more, not to mention the competing constellations in the works. Let’s remember that, according to the “Outer Space Treaty” of 1967, the outer space beyond 100 kilometers is not the property of anyone and can be boarded by any “lord”. The astronomers protest because the light trails make their pictures unusable. It is neither serious, nor important1:
Elon Musk dismisses these concerns, saying he is confident that his satellites will have no impact on astronomical discoveries and that, if necessary, their surface will be painted black.
Elon Musk is a good vassal of the technological system: he always has a solution. Satellite operators are worried about the saturation of low orbits, increased risks of collision and falling debris… But:
Elon Musk replies that all his satellites are equipped with thrusters capable of returning them to Earth at the end of their life.
Elon Musk is an excellent engineer and he always has a solution. And then, these few inconveniences (we pass over the terrestrial pollution caused by the manufacture, the launch and the perpetual replacement of these satellites, the million antennas on the ground that it will be necessary to manufacture and maintain…) are well worth the money because, he promises it to us, thanks to Starlink, the 3% to 4% of the world’s population excluded from the high speed “will be able to watch high-def movies, play video games, and do all the things they want to do without noticing speed”. This is indeed worth a few scratches on the astronomical pictures. But he says this absentmindedly, without apparent motivation, because frankly this project is already on orbit and that’s not what he’s getting at. He speaks to an appreciative audience but talks as if he were alone. He recalls:
The whole purpose of SpaceX is to contribute to our interplanetary existence.
Starlink is only one way to accumulate enough money to reach the planet Mars, to live and perhaps die there. He pronounces this sentence which sums up his dynamic quite well, evoking that of the knight in chess:
Il faut que nous [ SpaceX ] fassions très attention à ne pas rester coincés dans un maximum local.
It is a metaphor that mathematicians and physicists understand intuitively. He will not go to Mars with the rockets he has developed to launch his satellites in front of humanity, reach the international space station or orbit the moon. He occupies an economic and financial “local maximum” from which it must extract himself immediately to conceive a real spacecraft. This is the “Starship” project, Musk’s maximum goal.
The luminous trails left in this warm spring evening are only the indications of this more grandiose project, whatever the price to pay for a planet that has become obsolete. As his ex-wife Justine says: “[…] he rules through strength of will. What he has comes at a price, sometimes to Elon, sometimes to people close to him. But someone always pays”. In this case, our turn may have come.
Him: “Beyond Good and Evil” (short bio)
Elon Musk was born on June 28, 1971 in Pretoria, apartheid South Africa2:
The Musks were a race nearly as much as they were a family, with a specialized awareness of themselves as wanderers and adventurers. Every Musk is able to tell the story of forebears whose accomplishments serve as an inspiration and whose energy endures as an inheritance — a grandfather who won a race from Cape Town to Algiers; a great-grandmother who was the first female chiropractor in Canada; grandparents who were the first to fly from South Africa to Australia in a single-engine plane. “Without sounding patronizing, it does seem that our family is different from other people” says Elon’s sister, Tosca Musk. “We risk more”.
There’s not much more to understand about Elon Musk, except maybe this one more:
“It’s pretty rough in South Africa”, Kimbal Musk [ Elon’s brother ] says. “It’s a rough culture. Imagine rough — well, it’s rougher than that […]”
Elon Musk was a battered, lonely boy, locked in his books and who very early on had the project of emigrating to the United States and becoming an American; it was his “Mars goal” at the time. He passed through Canada, a kind of “local maximum”, thanks to his maternal lineage, and he obtained Canadian nationality in 1988. This step finally allowed him to emigrate to the United States in 1992, at the age of 21. He became a naturalized American citizen in 2002. Mission accomplished! In the meantime, with his brother Kimbal, he created Zip2 (internet solutions for companies) in 1995, resold Zip2 in 1999 and pocketed 22 million dollars in the process, created X.com (online banking) which became PayPal in 2001, and received 180 million dollars when it was resold in 2002. So here he is (relatively) rich and American. The conquest of space could start.
He created SpaceX in 2002, took control of Tesla in 2008, created Neuralink and The Boring Company in 2016. In the meantime, he launched the Hyperloop, Powerwall and OpenAI initiatives… In August 2017 he is at the head of a fortune estimated at 20 billion dollars. He now sees himself as the “chief innovator” of a world which, according to him, is struggling to define a desirable future and to give itself the means to achieve it, a world which lacks strength and vision3. On this point, we can only agree with him.
Let’s pass on the episodes, betrayals, quasi-bankruptcies… that have already forged the “legend” of Elon Musk and divided the world into three camps: those who adore him, those who think he’s crazy, and those who adore him and think he’s crazy (“sometimes it takes a psychopath to show the way to humanity”4). He leaves us with the impression of a man who has remained “locked-in” and in constant dialogue with himself (we exist only as vague echoes of the real world perceived in a dream), a man even more “relentless” than Jeff Bezos (Homo Amazonus – he and Bezos also have in common that little egocentricity of the domain name – relentless.com for Bezos and x.com for Musk).
Finally, Musk conjures up the image of this tropical liana, the Sipo Matador, which the French philosopher Michel Onfray evokes in his book “Cosmos” about Nietzsche, and which progressively destroys its support tree by seeking to reach the light of the canopy, “beyond good and evil”.
It is not so much this “liana” that interests us as the dying tree that allows it to reach for the sky, that is, our economic, political and social systems. What have we become so that a few can decide the futures we should desire? Powerless, for sure! We live today, partly of course, in the dreams of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk… without forgetting Thomas Edison, perhaps the first of them, Edison who “enlightened” the world, a fantastic progress, but not without having burned alive many animals during his experiments nor brutally smashing the competition. Tech has never belonged to nice engineers with a passion for ethics.
The propellant that enables these entrepreneurs to “change the world” without going through the “democracy box” is what the French economist Michel Volle has called “ultracapitalism” and for which tech provides the soldiery. Michel Volle reminds us, in a striking shortcut, what it is all about5:
In 1975, the “technical system” emerged, based on the synergy between microelectronics and software. The production function and the cost function are transformed. The result is an economy where the incentive to predation is strong, with the generalization of monopolistic competition and “maximum risk”. The imaginary is manipulated by the media, whose message replaces experience in the shaping of the personality.
It always takes a “detonator” to change the economic and societal system. In this case, it was the oil crisis, which shook up for good an industrial system plagued by overproduction and already ready to fall under the blows of computerization. It had in fact become possible, thanks to information technology, to design products in which most of the enormous production costs would be condensed in the design phase, products which would then cost almost nothing to produce and which would therefore be like “cash machines”.
There was the example of software and now that of the “cloud” or this “platform capitalism” as Nick Srnicek called it6, with Uber, Amazon, Google … and all these companies whose demise has been predicted many times because, unlike the previous industrial model, they did not make any profit, sometimes for years. Billions of dollars brought in by investors or lent by banks have been concentrated to design and install these global machines that make money without (almost) costing anything: x cents of the click, y% of the order, z% of the delivery…
This ultracapitalism “by design” has three major consequences, the three roots of the tree to which the Sipo Matador clings.
The first is the necessary maximum compression of production costs, which is neither “good” nor “evil” but just logical. This compression is the vital condition for maintaining the value invested. It is therefore necessary to remove from the production chain everything that might resemble work: automating, compressing wages, making human costs variable, etc. What we sometimes fail to understand is that most of these companies are “beings” that can never recover from even a slight shock to production costs (in 2020, Uber, for example, is still fighting for its survival): it is all the “ultracapital” invested, which is kind of “condensed labor”, that would risk evaporation. This is also why these companies, to whom we pay for the use of their products without hesitation, somehow hold the system.
The second consequence, even more devastating for social cohesion, is what Michel Volle calls “maximum risk”. It is obvious that, since most of the costs are incurred before any profit or even income is generated, the investment is similar to a huge bet in a casino game. The consequence of this maximum risk is the search for maximum “coverage”, leading inevitably to predatory behavior. Maximum coverage can lead to opacity (commissions, tax havens…) or even to illegality, corruption or lies… In any case, they give rise to behavior marked by an undeniable violence.
The third consequence, which follows on from the previous one, is the advent of a system of “monopolistic competition” by which each ultracapitalist company secures its ground, as large as possible, by establishing a product/service monopoly. A mosaic of economic territories has thus appeared, bitterly defended and conquered, if necessary, by “creative destruction”, as we modestly say.
Him: “ultra-conformist” (i.e., everything but an “innovator”)
Given that Tesla has never made an annual profit in the almost 15 years since we have existed, profit is obviously not what motivates us.
Elon Musk – 2018 – by email to its employees7
If you want to position yourself and act in the new world, you have to start by seeing that ultracapitalism and tech go hand in hand. It is indeed digital tech that allows the creation of the products that we have just mentioned and which therefore calls for ultracapitalism, as steam called capitalism in the 19th century. By the way, those who protest against this wild capitalism, whatever their political leanings, must admit that there is only one alternative: either a great chaotic and violent “reset” (which some people hope for), or a change of technical regime (which no one sees).
In our opinion, Elon Musk has nothing of an authentic visionary: he is only pushing the current “regime” to its climax by borrowing existing techniques, buying existing companies and dreaming already known dreams (going to Mars, driving an electric vehicle, going very fast in tunnels…). A kind of “cuckoo strategy” … He is a man of this “ultra-conformist” present who pushes this technical regime to its paroxysm by clinging to all branches of ultracapitalism. He therefore stages this “maximum risk” which is so natural to him (as Tosca Musk says: “we risk more”); he seeks to occupy a symbolically and then economically defined field in the competitive monopoly; he seeks to apply the rules of ultra-compressed marginal cost of production to industry…
Let’s take Tesla as an example. If you have to set your hunting ground in a competitive monopoly, it is of course impossible to quickly conquer directly that of the already established global manufacturers. It is therefore necessary to occupy another ground. This will not be the ground of the electric car itself, but the field of electric car manufacturing, where, “unfortunately”, there are still significant production costs, especially labor costs8:
The Competitive strength of the Tesla’s long-term is not going to be the car, it’s going to be the factory. In other words, Tesla wants to perfect building the machine which builds the machine.
This is why, against the advice of his engineers, the stubborn Elon Musk defended for a long time the idea of full automation of his factories before backing down in the face of technical problems, time pressure and investors. It was obviously a question of compressing the costs of a production sufficient to avoid disappearing. It is also to achieve strong economies of scale that he has decided to control the manufacture of the battery, a strategic part of the electric car, with its giant factory concept: the “Gigafactory”. Strictly speaking, there is no “vision”, but rather a fierce will to serve a relentless and rather simple logic.
To his credit, he has managed to shake up the global automotive industry in just a few years. Tesla is now on track and seems to have become just another “local maximum” for him.
It is important to remember that Elon Musk built his financial independence with digital technology (Zip2 and then PayPal) and that he has retained this mantra: “design is king”. Now, applied to the automobile and the conquest of space, this mantra calls for ultracapitalism which, by a kind of symbiotic parasitism, reinforces it in return.
According to Michel Volle, this risk creates a situation of violence (at least symbolic) in the face of risks and calls for a social regime that is simpler and better adapted than the democratic regime: the feudal regime. Here is a brief historical reminder (emphasis added)9:
According to some [ French ] historians such as Pierre Bonnassie or Jean-Pierre Poly, this feudal society would be the result of the disappearance of public authority around the tenth century, due to a socio-political crisis, the feudal mutation.
We recognize there our own situation and the progressive decay of the traditional democratic authorities, in particular educational, judicial or constitutional, facing the territories conquered in force by the new “lords”. Let us also observe that if “the couple formed by predation and charity had characterized the feudal society”, we observe indeed that “predation and charity return, under specific forms, in the contemporary economy”10. “Charity” inevitably reminds us of multi-billion-dollar foundations, such as that of Bill and Melinda Gates, which compete with the largest international institutions for resources.
Michel Volle’s description of the feudal era applies almost perfectly to our own time (additions in brackets)11 :
[ In feudal times ] the perception of time was blurred : writing was not widespread, the recording of facts was imprecise [ social networks ] and they soon gave birth to myths [ fake news – post-truth ]. The end of the world seemed to be near [ global warming ], panics spread as soon as a warning sign was announced [ coronavirus ]. Spirits lived between a past transformed by the legend [“America great again”] and a future limited by the proximity of the apocalypse [ collapsology ].
We should extend and update Michel Volle’s analyses by emphasizing that the feudalized territory, to which we “belong” is at least as much economic as symbolic. This second mode has even become fundamental since the advent of social networks, of which Musk and Trump make very similar use (Twitter in particular). Volle had already seen this before these social networks unfolded their full power (emphasis added)12 :
At the heart of this economy, symbolic thought returns in force, this preconceptual thought which directs the gaze and that rationalism had silenced since the 17th century, thus mutilating not the functioning of our mind – which cannot do without symbols any more than our body can do without food – but the expression and understanding of this functioning.
The territories to be occupied by monopolistic competition are now symbolic and pervaded by tweets, news or dreams. In this conquest, which seriously harms our understanding of events, the independent media are of course middlemen to be eliminated and the truth is a nonsense. Elon Musk, Donald Trump and others… behave today like overlords and send us back what we have become: a society dominated by fear and ready for a barter with no other counterpart than the protection of the “lord”.
Him: going « King-crazy »?
I don’t think you’d necessarily want to be me, I don’t think people would like it that much.
Elon Musk – 201813
Talulah Riley, Elon Musk’s second wife, once said that her real job was to prevent him from becoming “king-crazy”, an expression that “no one uses it outside of England. It means that people become king, and then they go crazy”. Of course, Musk and Trump are far from being lonely and are still surrounded by “safeguards”, especially family ones. But symbolic predation, with its inevitable ferocity, seems to provoke a first episodic then permanent reflux of rationality. Now, rationality allows to control the propagation of violence in large social groups. Rationality is that very particular form of civilization consisting in lending to the other a “turn of mind” analogous and therefore as estimable as one’s own. It is obviously no longer so necessary in a society corroded by predation and feudalization.
The predatory use of communication combined with technological “solutionism” sometimes does damage. On June 23, 2018 in Thailand, Ekkapol Chantawong, a soccer coach, takes twelve young people from his team to visit a cave, but the monsoon rages; the water rises quickly, and they are trapped without food or oxygen. It was only on July 2 that British divers managed to locate them. After many attempts, they will be released one after the other between July 8 and 10. In the meantime, Elon Musk got involved, because he always has a solution, in this case a mini submarine made with chunks of his Falcon rocket14:
The idea did not really convince Vernon Unsworth, one of the British divers, who declared that “it had absolutely no chance of working” and that it was only a “publicity stunt”15. Unsworth did not immediately realize that he was attacking a symbolic stronghold and exposing himself to unmitigated retaliation. In a tweet that has since been deleted, Elon Musk thus replied to Unsworth16:
The pedophilia accusation is as idiotic as a halberd strike. Tesla stock falls; investors are concerned. Elon Musk will apologize on July 1817.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which he also decided to get involved in, now gives him another opportunity to “excel”, successively tweeting that “Kids are essentially immune” (March 19, 2020)18, agreeing with another tweet stating that “most people are simply naturally immune” (March 18, 2020), downplaying the severity of the situation in Italy (March 21, 2020), or that perhaps the use of chloroquine should be considered (March 16, 2020). His positions have moved the psychiatrist and Ethos Clinic CEO and founder Raja:
Michel Volle again, about predators19 :
Contradiction does more than upset them, it outrages them because it is an offense to the cult they devote to their person and in which everyone must participate. They are “sincere liars”: their person, divinized, is a source of truth much more than experience or the facts can be. They therefore claim, according to the impulse of the moment but always with the same strength of conviction, “truths” that contradict each other.
But there are also the economic stakes linked to Tesla, whose production costs must be kept ruthlessly low in order to preserve the “ultra-bet”. Elon Musk therefore logically resisted as much as possible the shutdown of his Fremont plant, in defiance of the containment imposed on March 16 in the San Francisco area20. In an email, he further assessed that “the harm from the coronavirus panic far exceeds that of the virus itself” and that “confirmed COVID-19 (this specific form of the common cold) cases will not exceed 0.1% of the US population”21.
Elon Musk finally had to close his factory on March 23. He tried everything to reopen it, even declaring on April 29: “But to say that they cannot leave their house, and they will be arrested if they do, this is fascist. This is not democratic. This is not freedom. Give people back their goddamn freedom”22. To invoke democracy and the risk of “fascism” in a feudal regime is an act of symbolic predation, like this misleading statement: “we are not motivated by profit”.
No surprise, Donald Trump came to the rescue on May 12:
Today, economic and above all symbolic predation is leading to rather unexpected objective alliances between “crazy kings” from all over the world. Has Elon Musk become one of them? It is possible because Talulah Riley, who is no longer Mrs. Musk since 2016, no longer occupies his “job”.
Do We exist for Him?
Elon Musk has many other projects in mind for the good of humanity, for example with his company Neuralink, which designs neural implants that allow us to be connected “by thought” to someone or to a machine (The mirrors of the “I”). Thus, Elon Musk estimates that we will be able to do without language within 5 to 10 years. This project is a rather radical indication of a basic techno-tendency towards a return of the “bicameralization” of the individual, a thesis that we suggested in Following Julian Jaynes: comeback of the Bicameral Mind? In a few words, consciousness is no longer necessary if humans return to the “bicameral” brain23:
Strictly speaking, bicamerality is defined as a neural internalization of admonitory social control through a nonconscious process of auditory verbal hallucination similar to schizophrenic command hallucinations.
Doing a little science-fiction, the idea of a potential “admonitory social control” by an implant designed by Elon Musk is quite chilling. We would receive his “tweets” directly in our minds, etc. We are probably exaggerating, but the basic tendency is indeed to symbolic manipulation that directs the gaze towards “interplanetary life”, “disappearance of language” or “America Great Again” … disregarding the very idea that the Other can think differently, or even think at all. All that is missing is a cortical implant…
Such a special vassal
In a nutshell, the parasitic symbiosis between tech and ultracapitalism leads to the revival of a social system of a feudal nature regulated by conducts of economic and symbolic predation induced by maximum risk situations. Elon Musk seems born to embody this system.
Only a change of technical paradigm, (or, of course, a collapse) can change the deal, because the chain of causes seems to be as follows:
Tech → Ultracapitalism → Maximum risk → Predation / Feudalism → King-crazy
Elon Musk said that no one would like to be him but the world he is leading us to is him. We are already “in his head”, which is something that crossed our mind when we observed the light trails of the Starlink galaxy. On the other hand, we do not have his exceptional body24 :
That was the missing dimension. The extra dimension, for Justine, was “the body he was born into”. He could endure almost anything, impose his will on almost anyone. “He’s a big man, he’s strong-willed and powerful, he’s like a bear. He can be playful and funny and romp around with you, but in the end you’re still dealing with a bear”.
Most of us do not have this resistance; it is not certain that we have today apt “bodies” for its projects, like the Martian project25:
Your probability of dying on Mars is much higher than on Earth. It’s gonna be hard. There’s a good chance of death, going in a little can through deep space.
That’s for sure: we prefer to work for the preservation of our terrestrial “local maximum” rather than follow this vassal of the technological system, remarkable in many ways but so “special”.
1. ↑ (in French) The Conversation – May 10, 2020 – Starlink : les dommages collatéraux de la flotte de satellites d’Elon Musk
2. ↑ Tom Junod / Esquire – November 15, 2012 – Elon Musk: Triumph of His Will
3. ↑ Hidden Philosophy – June 27, 2018 – The Hidden Philosophy of Elon Musk (lien cassé)
4. ↑ Ongoing Quora discussion – October 19, 2015 – Is Elon Musk psychopath?
5. ↑ Michel Volle / Economica – 2008 – Prédation et prédateurs
6. ↑ Nick Srineck / Goodreads – 2016 – Platform Capitalism
7. ↑ It is from 2018 that Elon Musk seems to be moving away from the shores of “reason” – CEO Magazine – October 18, 2018 – A touch of madness: Elon Musk
8. ↑ Rohan Mathawan / TechStory – July 16, 2018 – The Tesla Story
9. ↑ (in French) Wikipédia – Féodalité
10. ↑ Ibid. 5 p.94
11. ↑ Ibid. 5 p.100
12. ↑ Ibid. 5 p.148
13. ↑ Ibid. 7
14. ↑ Li Zhou / Vox – July 18, 2018 – Elon Musk and the Thai cave rescue: a tale of good intentions and bad tweets
15. ↑ news.com.au – July 16, 2018 – Diver responds to Elon Musk slurs as two major risks in saving Thai boys revealed
16. ↑ Milly Vincent / MailOnLine – November 20, 2019 – Elon Musk will testify at defamation trial against British diver who is suing the Tesla billionaire for calling him a ‘pedo guy’ as judge rejects his request to have the case thrown out for the third time
17. ↑ By the way, Elon Musk has been released from the charge of defamation: BBC News – December 6, 2019 – After resisting coronavirus order, Tesla will now end production in Fremont
18. ↑ Gustavo Henrique Ruffo / INSIDEEVs – March 24, 2020 – COVID-19 Shows Musk And Trump Have More In Common Than Most Think
19. ↑ Ibid. 5 p.29
20. ↑ Russ Mitchell / Los Angeles Times – March 19, 2020 – After resisting coronavirus order, Tesla will now end production in Fremont
21. ↑ Yoni Heisler / BGR – March 17, 2020 – After calling coronavirus panic ‘dumb,’ Elon Musk now says it’s harmful in leaked memo
22. ↑ Lauren Feiner / CNBC – April 29, 2020 – Elon Musk says orders to stay home are ‘fascist’ in expletive-laced rant during Tesla earnings call
23. ↑ Gary Williams / ResearchGate – June 2011 – What is it like to be nonconscious? A defense of Julian Jaynes
24. ↑ Ibid. 2
25. ↑ Martin Pengelly / The Guardian – November 25, 2018 – Elon Musk considers move to Mars despite ‘good chance of death’