Elon Musk’s headline-grabbing offer for Twitter is the latest in a series of high-stakes moves for the world’s richest person. Musk has made a name for himself as a bombastic CEO who commands attention from a legion of fans while also courting controversy.
But he’s more than a celebrity — he’s arguably the author and avatar of a new political economy. That is how Harvard University historian Jill Lepore explains his significance in a new podcast series, The Evening Rocket.
In an interview with All Things Considered, Lepore discusses the roots of Musk’s vision, his love of science fiction and what “Muskism” means in the modern day.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I think of Muskism as an extreme, extravagant form of capitalism, really extraterrestrial capitalism. I think [extreme capitalism] is a kind of unchecked capitalism that insists that the government really has no role in the regulation of economic activity, at the practical level. At the cultural level, it really is engaged with selling the public on the idea of futurism as a way to impose economic conditions that come from the very deep past.
I think of Muskism and its vision for colonizing Mars as dating from the age of imperialism when British imperialists were colonizing countries around the world and science fiction writers like H.G. Wells were indicting British imperialism by telling stories about space colonies and how wrong that would be to take other people’s land and enslave the people there.
And for Musk, somehow, you can resurrect those stories in order to justify colonization. So Muskism always has within it this extreme capitalism, always has within it almost a kind of ironic twist. Like, “You think this is bad? We’re gonna go back to when things were worse.”
As a historian, one of the things I find so fascinating about Musk and Muskism is how much of the fantasy of invention, especially “disruptive innovation,” boasts itself as part of a culture of futurism. Everything is forward-looking and an abandonment of the past — in fact, a disavowal of the past, because you really have to always be starting from scratch.
But so much of what the culture of Silicon Valley produces has its origins in science fiction, as I think a lot of those people would themselves recognize. But what they wouldn’t see is that the origins in science fiction is actually an origins in dystopian science fiction.
I think there was a period in his life when he was really into being Iron Man and being Tony Stark, and the press loved that and he was on the cover of every magazine. He appeared in one of the Iron Man movies with Robert Downey Jr. So he has a kind of celebrity iconic status. I mean, he’s the guy who was on SNL, right? And it’s part of the boyishness that “Musketeers” really love about him.
He can be very funny. He can be very witty online. He’s extremely smart guy. And there’s a playfulness around that. One of the things that’s distinctive about Musk, in the sense that he’s the best at this, is depicting your product as saving humanity. This also became a thing in Musk’s really early years. Even the Twitter bid in Musk’s language is somehow about saving civilization.
I think Musk’s politics are elusive for a reason. And I think the best way to discover them is to look at what he says about science fiction. You know, Musk grew up in South Africa, under apartheid, and left to avoid serving in the military that enforced that regime. He left when he was 17.
But his favorite book as a child was Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which he cites almost as a kind of guide for living, his kind of bible. But the Hitchhiker’s Guide, which was a radio play put out by BBC Radio 4, is actually an indictment of luxury capitalism. So, he’s somehow extremely comfortable and almost kind of delighting, I think, in getting past a credulous audience the idea that he wants to do good in the world.
So I think to try to deduce what Musk is looking for in attempting to buy Twitter, you’d be well advised to look for evidence of other public-spirited activity. There’s just really not a whole lot of evidence that his big priority is healthy, democratic society. So I think you could probably set aside the sort of wrapping on that package and ask yourself: What is it that he really wants, aside from more attention from Twitter?