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Elon Musk’s imaginary world

Historian Jill Lepore on the strange but familiar appeal of “Muskism.”

Elon Musk’s profile in silhouette.
Elon Musk listens as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks about constructing a high speed transit tunnel to O’Hare during a news conference in 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.
Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Who is Elon Musk, really?

I don’t have a good answer to that question. I’m not sure anyone does. Half the time I’m in awe of Musk and the other half I’m baffled by his Twitter antics. But as a cultural figure, Musk really occupies his own space.

He’s now the richest person on the planet (or the second richest person, depending on the day) and as his fame has grown, the line between the man and the myth has blurred. Some of that has to do with Musk’s gift for self-mythology, and some of it has to do with his very real achievements.

Whatever you think of Musk, there’s no denying his impact. I mean, this is a guy who moves markets with a single tweet. So what are we to make of that? And what are we to make of him?

A new podcast series by the Harvard historian Jill Lepore, called The Evening Rocket, tries to untangle all of this in a way only a historian could. It’s a deep dive into Musk, the guy, but it’s also an exploration of a much larger phenomenon that Musk personifies. For Lepore, Musk is the face of extreme capitalism, a capitalism rooted in science fiction stories and animated by fanciful plans to conquer space and save humanity. She calls this phenomenon “Muskism” and argues that it’s a recycled brand of techno-utopianism that’s fascinating, dangerous, and profoundly revealing.

I reached out to Lepore for the latest episode of Vox Conversations. We talk about the peculiar appeal of Musk, why the style of capitalism he represents has become so intoxicating, and how all of this fits into the broader history of technology and capitalism.

Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

You’re not profiling a famous person just because they’re famous. In a way, your podcast isn’t even about Musk, the guy. You see him as the face of something happening in our society that’s important and probably not well understood. So what is that thing and why is Musk the vehicle for it?

Jill Lepore

Oh, that’s fascinating. So, I’m a political historian. I’m not a biographer of the great and the famous and the rich. I really am fantastically uninterested in the history of celebrity or the presidency, honestly. And I wasn’t really much of a Musk follower. I was asked to do this project by the BBC.

And then I had to think about a way to say something that I thought could be useful about Elon Musk, but that really wasn’t a great-man biography or an anti-great biography. It’s not a takedown or anything, either. As a political historian, I’m interested in what Musk represents in our culture and political arrangements more broadly.

And I think we would do well to talk about “Muskism” as a kind of political economy, and we don’t, for some reason. There’s a lot of scrambling around to think about a way to talk about the latest incarnation of capitalism, right? Are we in late capitalism? Are we in advanced capitalism? Are we in post-industrial capitalism? Are we in surveillance capitalism? Is this platform capitalism? There’s something different, right? This is weird stuff.

So I think we should just think about it as extreme capitalism. And another way to think about extreme capitalism is Muskism, or I might describe it as being more speculative than industrial. The products are often not actually widgets, but theoretical items. Now this is often less so with Musk’s own companies, because he does actually build things. But it’s most of all influenced by visions of the future that derive from science fiction. In fact, from very old science fiction. So Muskism is really antiquarianism disguised as futurism.

Sean Illing

We’ll come back to the science fiction stuff later, but it’s interesting that you use the phrase “extreme capitalism.” Do you see Muskism as just another iteration of capitalism or as something even more fundamental?

Jill Lepore

I think it is an extreme form of capitalism in the sense that it’s plutocratic. It’s something old again. There’s a lot of feudalism in Muskism. It’s like there are these lords and the rest of us are the peasantry and our fates are in their hands because they know best. So I don’t think it’s a new economic vision. I actually think the idea that there’s something deeply new and profoundly, disruptively innovative about Muskism is part of the self-mystification of that worldview, right?

Sean Illing

What does that mean?

Jill Lepore

It’s important to these people to think that they are doing something wholly new and bigger and better and more extreme. My whole first episode of The Evening Rocket is about the letter X. They love the letter X, right? It’s the science fiction go-to fan letter. So everything is X to them. It’s extreme, it’s extraterrestrial, it’s extraordinary, it’s extravagant, it’s existential. Everything’s always existential, but it’s actually not. These are mere mortals like the rest of us. They put their pants on one leg at a time and then they go out and they try to gain power and subvert ordinary people’s ability to control their own lives. That is a lot of what capitalism is.

Sean Illing

Then why is it so important to identify and critique Muskism as a distinct thing?

Jill Lepore

I think people are fascinated by Musk. People who love Musk and hate Musk are all fascinated by Musk. And it’s hard to hold your attention on what might be going on structurally there because Musk is so flashy.

I think he wasn’t always so flashy. One of the arguments I make in The Evening Rocket is that he himself was quite transformed by his infatuation, the mutual infatuation between Musk and Hollywood when he sort of became Iron Man in the press, right? There were all these glossy magazine covers of sexy, handsome, young Elon Musk. He’s the new Iron Man, the real-life Iron Man, the real-life Tony Stark. So there was a glitterati moment for Musk in which he became kind of the Kim Kardashian of CEOs, and everything he said was fleeting and meaningless, but extremely influential in the stock market.

In other words, he’s a figure that’s hard to pay attention to in a sustained or structural way because of the nature of his public presence, which is very Twitter-driven, a very flashy, staged, PR-event-driven presence. So the next launch of the next SpaceX rocket, we get a glimpse of Elon Musk. He makes all the headlines in every paper. And there’s two things to be said about him and then he disappears again.

So how do you hold on to that, right? It’s like trying to hold on when someone pours a glass of water in your hands and it’s just pouring through your fingers. There was a volume of water in the glass and now it’s evaporated. How are we supposed to find meaning in that?

I thought it would be useful to sort of pull back again, as a political historian who thinks a lot about the relationship between politics and technology, and try to think systematically about where Musk’s ideas come from. The self-mystification of him is that every idea just pops out of his head. He’s a visionary. And I don’t mean to say that he isn’t a fascinating person with lots of ideas, but I am saying that most of his ideas are recycled.

Sean Illing

Before getting into the origins of some of those ideas, I want to linger on Musk’s fame a little longer. Why do you think he’s become such a transcendent cultural figure? It could’ve gone another way. Is it about him and how he’s packaged and sold himself, or is there something about us, something on the demand side, that made him the perfect face of all this?

Jill Lepore

I think it’s both. I do think it was a public relations strategy of Tesla early on. When Musk assumed leadership of the company, they decided that instead of advertising, which Tesla really does not do, they would promote the product by promoting the idea of Elon Musk. And then the idea of Elon Musk has to be a very particular life story, not unlike the campaign biographies of political figures, right? Andrew Jackson ushers in the age of the common man; he rose from poverty to the White House. James Garfield, from the log cabin to the White House. Bill Clinton, the boy from Hope, right? So it really relies on a familiar political packaging.

The packaging of Elon Musk was that he was a boy wonder. He had a vision to change the world as a child, that this was influenced by reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when he was a young teen.

It’s a political biography in that sense, but it’s something more than that, because it has real cult-y quality to it. He’s a messiah figure, and that’s really how Tesla presents him. And he embraces that role. I’ve never met Elon Musk. I can’t speak about him personally, but I think he enjoys the public battlefield. He enjoys mocking people online. He can be very funny. People love his humor. He has a kind of laddishness.

I mean, the guy runs through marriages and women and has children with a lot of different people, and that’s appealing. He has a massive social media presence and I think there’s a hunger for following someone who’s irreverent and funny and powerful. I think his followership really exploded when Trump was banned from Twitter. He’s not Trump. I mean, it’s a totally false comparison to make, but I think he appeals to people online in a similar way, right?

Sean Illing

Yeah, they’re obviously very different, but one connective thread, and this is something you kind of argue in the podcast, is that the popularity of Elon’s ideas, whether we’re talking about colonizing space or cryptocurrency or whatever, is a symptom of a damaged society, a society that’s lost faith in its institutions.

Jill Lepore

I’m not sure I ever put it that way in the podcast, but let me take the question at its face. Musk is a very accomplished engineer. He is not a straw man figure. He is a real person with real ideas who leads two major companies that have both undertaken extraordinary engineering feats. Tesla really does get a huge amount of credit for the revival of the electric vehicle, a nearly destroyed industry, right? SpaceX is doing extraordinary things. And if it weren’t for my sense of the sort of malign understory there, I’d be super thrilled and excited about it. It’s quite extraordinary.

But is the appeal a function of a damaged society? Well, I guess the example that I would give is: whether or not human beings on this planet should build colonies on Mars or on the moon is actually a question that we all have a stake in. And the presumption that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, the two wealthiest people in the world, get to decide the extraterrestrial fate of humankind is a bizarrely regressive notion.

You may or may not have approved of the Apollo mission to go to the moon in the 1960s, but you had a say in that. It was a government program where people engaged in political protest over it. A lot of people objected to the Apollo program, on the grounds that it was a misuse of public funds at a time when those funds could be better deployed implementing the Civil Rights Act and the equality requirements of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I mean, the day before the launch in 1969 of the Apollo 13, civil rights activists were at the Space Center protesting.

There’s a whole long tradition of democratic deliberation over our missions in space, but we’ve forgotten that tradition. Even the press will cover William Shatner going to space in a Blue Origin rocket and talk about Jeff Bezos’s childhood dreams coming true and it’s like, isn’t that groovy?

And then maybe there’s a goofy satirical version of that where there’s a joke about it on Saturday Night Live or something, but there’s no sustained examination. I mean, to be fair, there’s plenty of quarters of the internet where surely there is sustained examination, but on the whole, are we having a big public debate about whether a private citizen should build a base on the moon just because he has the money to do it? We haven’t had that conversation.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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