Elon Musk and all that was wrong with 2021

Time magazine picked a billionaire unconcerned with human misery as ‘Person of the Year’. This is quite befitting.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk was named 'person of the year' by Time magazine [File: Patrick Pleul/Pool via Reuters]

Time magazine recently chose Elon Musk – the “richest private citizen in history” and the CEO of rocket firm SpaceX and electric vehicle company Tesla – as its “2021 Person of the Year”. In the first paragraph of the lengthy profile of Musk accompanying the accolade, we learn that the man “tosses satellites into orbit and harnesses the sun”, sends the stock market soaring and swooning with a “flick of his finger”, and also “likes to live-tweet his poops”.

The second paragraph of the profile is devoted to further exploring this last theme:

“‘Just dropping some friends off at the pool’, the 50-year-old zillionaire informed his 66 million Twitter followers on the evening of Nov. 29, having previously advised that at least half his tweets were ‘made on a porcelain throne’”.

Presumably, the excremental intro is meant to project a down-to-earth, human dimension onto the tyrannical South African entrepreneur who wants to colonise Mars and has officially appointed himself “Technoking” of Tesla. Call it poop-washing, if you will.

For the next zillion or so paragraphs of the profile, Time magazine proceeds with its grotesque apologetics on behalf of 2021’s Chosen Person – explaining that, while Musk is “easily cast as a hubristic supervillain, lumped in with the tech bros and the space playboys”, he is ultimately “different”. This assessment appears directly after a discussion of Musk’s downplaying of the coronavirus threat and violation of local pandemic regulations to keep his factories running – all of which, Time muses, suggests that “the vast expanse of human misery can seem an afterthought to a man with his eyes on Mars”.

Might it not be more charming, then, to select a Person of the Year who is actually concerned with alleviating human misery – as opposed to someone chasing a dystopian vision of an exclusive future universe run by and for Elon Musk? Granted, this is the same magazine that named Adolf Hitler “Man of the Year” in 1938.

Marveling at “the man who aspires to save our planet and get us a new one to inhabit”, Time asserts that Musk is “arguably the biggest private contributor to the fight against climate change”. For a more grounded view of reality, consider the words of Max Ajl, author of the acclaimed book, A People’s Green New Deal, who remarked in an email to me that: “if capitalist destruction of the ecology were to take on human form, it would look like the Afrikaner aspiring cosmonaut Elon Musk”.

Ajl went on to observe, “In true apartheid form, spaceship rides envisioned by the Tesla tycoon will emit more CO2 in a few minutes than poor people emit in their entire lives”.

Capitalism, of course, is fundamentally anti-human – as, it seems, is Musk, whose own brother and business partner Kimbal acknowledges in the Time profile that Elon’s “gift is not empathy with people”.

Case in point: in October, a federal jury ordered Tesla to pay almost $137m to a Black ex-employee who, as the Washington Post notes, claimed workers were subjected to “a scene ‘straight from the Jim Crow era’”, characterised by rampant racist abuse and supervisors who refused to address the issue.

Then in December, six women filed separate suits against Tesla for alleged sexual harassment in the workplace – with many of them contending that Musk’s own frequent lewd behaviour on Twitter only encouraged sexual taunts and other abuse in a male-dominated work environment.

Add to this Musk’s willful endangerment of employees’ lives during the pandemic and other violations of labour laws – including his underhanded machinations and threats against workers wishing to unionise – and one begins to worry about how that whole Mars idea will pan out.

But anyway, why should workers bother trying to exert a modicum of control over their existences when the “brooding, blue-skinned man-god” – words courtesy of Time – already knows what is best for them? Again, it appears that Musk and only Musk knows what is good for everyone – like when he implied to Time that, were he to pay US government taxes proportionate to his astronomical wealth, this would “not result in, actually, the good of the people”, because the US government is “inherently not a good steward of capital”.

Never mind that this same government has also flung its capital at – what do you know? – Musk’s own projects, including via a critical $465m federal loan to Tesla in 2009. In fact, Musk and his companies have benefitted over the years from billions of dollars in public subsidies and government contracts. And yet, when US Senator Ron Wyden tweeted in November in favour of a Billionaires Income Tax, Musk tweeted back in Twitter shorthand with the mature and relevant suggestion that Wyden’s profile picture looked like he had just had an orgasm.

The Time tribute does mention these incidents, but manages to cast them as the fallout of a fascinatingly complex mind: that of a “clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad” as well as a “shy South African with Asperger’s syndrome, who escaped a brutal childhood and overcame personal tragedy” to pursue “cosmic ambition”. Muskian petulant tyranny is euphemised into a “hard-driving style” that takes a “legendary” toll on his staff. Tesla is said to maintain a “hard-charging approach”.

But while Time’s selection of Musk as its person of 2021 has rightfully generated controversy, he does perhaps appropriately embody what was an all-around sick year in terms of capitalism and the related maladies of coronavirus and climate change.

And as the world’s richest man tweets away from his porcelain throne into an ever more brutal future of elite despotism and collective tragedy, it seems it is a very fecal matter, indeed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.