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Thoughts on Elon, part 1

1. The question and the problem

What’s Elon Musk got to do with us? If we’re going to use Musk as a prism through which to understand not just our contemporary existence but a possible fruitful future world, however improbable, how should we go about it? Should we take Musk as someone with the perspicacity not just to see problems but to initiate projects capable of opening new pathways to solutions, or should we see him as a figure whose extreme inventive cleverness with respect to some aspects of present or future systemic crises (climate change, AI, congestion) comes at the expense of a truly systemic approach based on a truly critical analysis? Musk’s strategy, whether we look at Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Company or Neuralink, is to use innovative product design to induce technological acceleration with the goal of producing a kind of widespread industrial-economic stimulus amounting to a positive disruption, with the intended outcome being to bifurcate away from a dangerous pathway for humanity and towards a more hopeful future.

The question for ‘us’, then, is whether we can believe that the Muskian model of acceleration, disruption and bifurcation sufficiently grasps the depths of the largely negative disruption that is currently unfolding at high speed due to the very same process of accelerated innovation. Should we accept at face value Musk’s claim that he is a ‘pro-human’, pro-Earth proponent of biospheric transformation and positive anthropogenic forcing, or does such a claim obfuscate the reality that he is just a less unsympathetic ideologue of Silicon Valley computational, engineering and transhumanist ‘solutionism’? Is he the wizard we are looking for or just one more salesman selling us the dream of a magic wizard hat and leading us down his own particular Yellow Brick Road?

Another, much simpler way we can raise this question is to ask: is Elon Musk an artist? Are his electric cars, rocket ships and wizard hats the artefacts of a new kind of rational magic, the incantatory objects of the positive bifurcation we are seeking today? Before answering such a question, we must ask: what is an artist, if we conceive this in ‘social’ or ‘anthropological’ terms? What is the function of art, and what is the function of art today? If we say that our species is and has from the outset co-existed with the material and technological artefacts and prostheses it produces, and that this production, which for millennia occurred imperceptibly slowly but today operates extremely rapidly, requires forms of social organization in order to be used well, and then, through the changing of these technical systems, disrupts social organization and so requires the invention of new forms of social organization, in turn requiring new instruments, and new ways of using these instruments – if all this is true, then is the function of art, which is itself a production of and by instruments and artefacts, to provide ways of negotiating and facilitating these disruptions, these problems, these questions, and so of overcoming them? And if so, what is the function of art in a world where the perpetual and rapid acceleration of technological innovation has produced an immense set of problems that synergistically and antagonistically combine in a manner that seems to have set the course of the world system on an apocalyptic path?

Is it conceivable that Elon Musk is (to put it in the terms of Joseph Beuys) socially sculpting Silicon Valley billionaires and, more generally, capital, through a corporate artistry conducted so as to affirmatively respond, and as quickly as possible, to the large set of grave problems and disruptions with which we are presently afflicted? And if we say no, this is not conceivable, if we wish to reject such a conclusion, then is it enough just to smugly bemoan the hubris of this modern-day Icarus: would not the responsibility to think better and care better, and so to respond better, with greater artistry and greater genius, then fall upon us?

In raising this question – the question of Elon Musk – we are opening a path that will prove, in what follows, to be both elliptical and circuitous. But with regard to the conclusion to which it leads, we are obliged to be absolutely clear. Macroeconomic critique has long been concerned with the contradictions of capitalism, and rightly so: the antagonistic battle of tendency and counter-tendency within the hyper-globalized capitalist technosphere is undoubtedly thrusting the latter headlong to a limit point that ultimately threatens to ‘clog the economic arteries and increase the dangers of a political stroke’ that may well be fatal.

But in addition to these contradictions, there are also contradictions within critical macroeconomic discourse itself. On the one hand, the most clear-sighted discourses on environmental sustainability in the age of climate change understand full well that desperately needed ‘dramatic reductions in emissions at current high levels of consumption are very challenging’, to say the least: hyper-consumption profoundly threatens environmental sustainability and solvency in the age of the Anthropocene. On the other hand, the most clear-sighted discourses on macroeconomic sustainability understand full well that this hyper-globalization, fuelled by financial deregulation and subsequent debt-driven bubbles, has led to ‘more inequality, underconsumption, debt and, consequently, macroeconomic vulnerability’: under-consumption profoundly threatens macroeconomic sustainability and solvency in the age of hyper-globalization.

This problem amounts to a dual contradiction, both of capitalism itself and of its critique: global ecological sustainability absolutely requires addressing the risks brought by hyper-consumption, while global economic sustainability absolutely requires addressing the risks brought by under-consumption. The depths of this dual contradiction justifies referring to it as an aporia of sustainability, and the failure to resolve this macroeconomic aporia gives rise to the significant threat of a global economic insolvency and a global political stroke of a magnitude sufficient to expose human civilization to a level of danger that is best described in terms of ‘extinction risk’.

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