With over 2.3 million live viewers, the recent launch of a SpaceX rocket became YouTube’s second-most-viewed live stream ever. The Falcon Heavy is the world’s most powerful commercial rocket, with the ability to place 68.3 metric tons in low Earth orbit. A SpaceX innovation that allows the rocket’s boosters to fly back to Earth for reuse has reduced the cost per launch to around $90 million a pop—just a fraction of the competitors’ prices. The spectacle has sparked new excitement for space exploration, along with a wave of publicity for the billionaire CEO of the company, Elon Musk.
SpaceX has faced both criticism and praise for their test payload of choice—a full-sized $200,000 Tesla Roadster car—one of the latest models produced by another of Musk’s companies. Most saw this as a publicity stunt and a missed opportunity to gain further knowledge from the mission. However, despite years of missed deadlines and unsuccessful tests, the car is now on its way to the Mars orbit, Musk’s tribute to the alleged superiority of private sector innovation.
Aside from his aspiration to colonize other planets and transform humanity into an interplanetary species, Musk has also set himself the goal of accelerating “the world’s transition to sustainable energy” with the development of Tesla high-end electric cars and SolarCity solar panels. Along with fellow billionaire celebrities Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, Musk’s grandiose aspirations for improving the future of humankind have mostly resulted in sending his personal net worth skyrocketing; according to Forbes, he is now the 24th richest US billionaire.
In the eyes of his fan base, Musk has become more than a superstar entrepreneur—he has come to personify the search for new horizons at a time when capitalism has driven humanity to a dead end. However, to imagine that Musk built a tech empire single-handedly, through his ingenuity and “hard work,” or that the long-term survival of our species is assured thanks to his break-through technology is far from reality.
A co-founder of PayPal, he made millions when the company was sold to eBay. He then invested his money in industries considered high risk. Indeed, Tesla and SolarCity continue to report losses while their stock prices surge. As for SpaceX, it is privately held and doesn’t publicly report on financial performance. So where do the companies’ resources come from? The Los Angeles Times points out that a combination of government grants, tax breaks, the selling of environmental credits, as well as direct investment from NASA, the Air Force, and the Department of Energy have allowed Musk and his companies’ investors to thrive. In short, the companies have been built with billions in government subsidies, at the expense of taxpayers.
Companies like SpaceX are stepping in to fill the vacuum left by NASA after years of austerity and cuts in funding. Trump’s directive for NASA to pursue manned missions to the moon, with an emphasis on “private partners” based in the US is another step toward privatizing exploration of the final frontier. Trump’s budget proposal for 2019 includes the elimination of NASA’s education program, millions in cuts to astrophysics research, and an end to funding of the International Space Station after 2024, which may then be transferred into private hands. As wealthy individuals approach SpaceX for private trips to the moon in coming years, a cash-strapped NASA will be forced to turn to private technology to pursue its directives.
There is no doubt that Musk has plenty of intelligence and creativity. But his personal qualities are not the source of his companies’ innovations. On the one hand, most technological innovations owe much of their success to public sector research, which private companies like Musk’s build upon and repackage for their own lucrative applications. On the other hand, his companies employ over 30,000 workers—scientists and engineers, contractors, factory workers, etc.—who often put in over 80 hours a week to design, develop, and manufacture the products. Apart from some of the better-paid scientists, many of his employees suffer terrible working conditions and low pay. As a worker at one of Tesla’s automated mega factories put it, “Everything feels like the future [here] but us.”
Last October, the United Auto Workers filed a complaint against Tesla after some 700 workers were laid off, including many who were involved in efforts to unionize. Management was also charged with harassing employees who were caught with union literature. These unionization efforts come as an attempt by the workers to fight against mandatory overtime and long hours under intense pressure to fulfill unrealistic production targets. According to The Guardian, ambulances were called over 100 times between 2014 and 2017 for “workers experiencing fainting spells, dizziness, seizures, abnormal breathing and chest pains,” while hundreds more had to take medical leave for work-related injuries. At the same time, reporting an injury can cause workers to be demoted and face dramatic pay cuts, so most are forced to work through the pain.
Musk responded that it is “not likely” that Tesla’s production workers will be allowed to unionize, while promising alternative “perks” such as throwing “a really amazing party,” frozen yogurt stands around the factory or an in-house roller coaster. He also pointed out that it is hurtful for him to be accused of not caring about the employees; he suffers alongside them by placing his desk “in the worst place in the factory” and sleeping on the facility floor. But his ultimate excuse for the workers’ exploitation and humiliation is that thanks to his companies, we will see a sustainable energy future and a better world someday—or, if worse comes to worst, escape Earth and colonize Mars.
In reality, the extravagant promises of eccentric capitalist tech moguls won’t bring us one step closer to a better society. Advances in science have long provided the potential to end all problems faced by humanity, yet not a single decisive step has been taken to resolve them. The fundamental obstacle to achieving this is the private ownership of the means of production, which places these resources at the disposal of the markets and the profits of a few, instead of the interest of the majority.
This divergence between the technological potential in society and the actual conditions millions of people face throughout the world explains why, according to The Economist, Musk’s “faith in technological progress is . . . explicitly tinged with darkness.” The drive to run his companies—other than a desire to make millions—is rooted in a fundamentally pessimistic outlook. He believes that our world is likely a computer simulation, and has even set up a non-profit to combat the threat of Artificial Intelligence. And yet he feels that we need a backup planet for when society collapses after the inevitable climate catastrophe. This is the pinnacle of “progressive” capitalist ideology in its period of terminal decay.
In contrast, socialists believe that the productive forces at humanity’s disposal today are more than sufficient for solving the problems facing our species and the planet. But the solution is not smart “alternative” technology produced by overexploited workers and fueled by public money, while the broader population suffers the consequences of austerity and the 1% continues to make millions. Rather, the key lies in the conscious scientific planning of the economy based on democratic control by the working class as a whole.
The expropriation of companies like SpaceX and Tesla, along with all key levers of industry, would put extraordinary resources at society’s disposal to mitigate climate change by transitioning to sustainable energy resources on a massive scale. By harnessing the cutting edge of scientific and productive technique, as well as the full creative potential of millions of minds, humanity will then be free to embark on a genuine pursuit of new horizons.