Self-proclaimed ‘socialist’ to ‘red pill’ anti-lockdown crusader: What are Elon Musk’s politics?

The Tesla and SpaceX tycoon has donated to both parties and attacked everyone from Joe Biden through Donald Trump to trade unions and ‘pronouns’, but underneath it all there is a consistent ideology, writes Io Dodds

Wednesday 15 June 2022 23:24
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“I prefer to stay out of politics." Those were Elon Musk’s words when the tech exec was forced to respond to a claim by Texas governor Greg Abbott that he supported the state’s anti-abortion laws.

If so, Mr Musk has a funny way of showing it. Over his decade-plus of public fame as the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, the South-African-born tycoon has attacked everyone and everything, from Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders through individual regulatory officials to Covid rules, trade unions, and "pronouns".

In May, he capped off months of criticism of US president Joe Biden by revealing that in the past he had “overwhelmingly” voted for Democrats, but would now switch his support to Republicans in at least one future election.

“In the past I voted Democrat, because they were (mostly) the kindness party. But they have become the party of division and hate, so I can no longer support them and will vote Republican,” he said.

It came after he hammered Mr Biden’s flagship infrastructure and social spending bills last year for granting unnecessary subsidies to the electric car industry and increasing the "insane" federal budget deficit, and later called the president a “damp sock puppet in human form”.

A month later he went further, revealing he had voted for a Republican candidate and suggesting he would support the GOP Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, should he run for the White House.

“I voted for Mayra Flores – first time I ever voted Republican. Massive red wave in 2022,” Mr Musk tweeted.

“I assume Republican for president [too]?” one Twitter user asked.

“[To be determined],” Mr Musk replied.

“What are you leaning towards?” he was asked in a follow-up question.

“DeSantis,” Musk said.

Responding later, Mr DeSantis joked about the South African-born billionaire’s comments: “I’m focused on 2022, but with Elon Musk, what I would say is I welcome support from African Americans. What can I say?”

Whatever his vote, the 50-year-old’s exact politics have previously been hard to pin down. He has donated often to both Democrats and Republicans while variously declaring himself a “moderate”, a “socialist”, and “socially liberal and fiscally conservative”.

This April, he launched an extraordinary offer to buy the entirety of Twitter for $54.20 a share (about $44 billion), arguing that the social network’s management is too left wing and that the online “public square” must be recaptured for “free speech”.

So what does Elon Musk really believe? And, given that he is the world’s second-richest person with an estimated net worth of $219bn (£167bn), what does that mean for the rest of us?

Who has Elon Musk donated money to?

Mr Musk's descriptions of his own politics have occasionally been confusing. The most consistent theme has been that he is "socially liberal and fiscally conservative", or even "socially very liberal". He has claimed to be registered as an independent and said: “To be clear, I am not conservative."

In April he posted a stick figure cartoon on Twitter that depicted political moderates, including himself, standing still on the political spectrum while the left accelerates away into extremism, dragging the centre ground away and making moderates appear right wing by comparison.

In 2018, though, he described himself as “a utopian anarchist of the kind best described by Iain Banks”, referring to the late Scottish sci-fi author who wrote longingly (if sceptically) of a space-faring anarcho-socialist civilisation called the Culture, which has no money, no poverty, no wage labour, no police, no prisons, no standing army, and nearly infinite abundance of basic goods.

At another point he claimed to be a “socialist”, but “not the kind that shifts resources from most productive to least productive”. He later said we should not take it too seriously.

Instead, let’s put Mr Musk’s money where his mouth is and look at his political donations. According to data gathered by the non-profit lobbying watchdog Open Secrets, Elon Musk has given a total of $1.2m to politicians, parties, political action committees (PACs), and referendum campaigns since 2002.

That money went almost equally to Democrats, with $542,000, and Republicans, with $574,500, with another $85,000 going to two broadly left-wing referendum campaigns in California. The balance has fluctuated over the years: in 2006, 2013 and 2017 he donated overwhelmingly to Republicans, while in 2015 he gave exclusively to Democrats.

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He has also given a total of $30,000 to a PAC set up by SpaceX, which donated 54 per cent of its total to Democrats and 46 per cent to Republicans. Many of the individual politicians he gave to were state legislators in California, where Tesla was formerly based, and Texas, where SpaceX has long maintained rocket testing and launch facilities.

Meanwhile, SpaceX itself has spent about $9.7m on lobbyists and Tesla has spent $5.5m. The former company relies on government contracts for much of its revenue, while the latter is subject to plenty of regulation. "SpaceX's campaign to win political support has been systematic and sophisticated," wrote the Sunlight Foundation in 2013.

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The way Mr Musk explains it, these donations do not really signal much about his own personal beliefs. Instead he describes them as simply the cost of doing business in America.

"In order to have your voice be heard in Washington, you have to make some little contribution," he told the Huffington Post in 2013. "But... I haven't found Washington to be as corrupt as a lot of people think it is, meaning it's not as coin-operated as some people may assume, and I'm very actually grateful for that, because if it were we would have zero chance."

‘Socially very liberal’? Musk has sent mixed signals

What about Mr Musk’s social views? He clearly has a strong libertarian streak, favouring "direct democracy" over representative democracy and proposing that future Martian colonies should allow any law to be overturned by a vote of 40 per cent of the citizens.

He has also advocated releasing people imprisoned in the US for cannabis offences before the drug was legalised, and indeed partaken in it himself during an interview with podcast host Joe Rogan.

Mr Musk has donated to more individual Democratic politicians than to Republicans, and often praised specific Democrats in a way he has rarely done with their opponents. Way back in 2005, he gave $10,000 to California’s Proposition 82, a proposal to increase taxes on the rich to pay for universal pre-school for four-year-olds, although it did not pass.

When Donald Trump was a candidate for the Republican nomination, Mr Musk said of him: "I feel a bit stronger that he is probably not the right guy. He doesn’t seem to have the sort of character that reflects well on the United States."

On the other hand, Mr Musk’s statements about social issues have rarely been as vociferous or clear as his economic views. Indeed, he has often sent contrary signals and occasionally seemed to flirt with social conservatism.

Last spring, for instance, he told followers to "take the red pill", a phrase used by white supremacists and anti-feminists to describe the process of being radicalised into their worldview.

At the time, he was engaged in a crusade against California’s Covid lockdown policies, which he described as "fascist". He had declared early in the pandemic that "the coronavirus panic is dumb" and that there virus would be gone from America by the end of April.

That July he tweeted the statement "pronouns suck", which was interpreted by many as a dig at transgender people (since pronouns themselves are a fundamental and inescapable part of the English language).

His then-girlfriend Claire Boucher, aka the electronic musician Grimes, certainly read it that way, responding: "I love you but please turn off ur phone or give me a call. I cannot support hate. Please stop this. I know this isn’t your heart."

In December 2020 he tweeted a meme likening cisgender people who state their pronouns on their Twitter profiles, which is a common way of expressing solidarity with trans people, to oppressive Redcoats in colonial America. He later clarified: "I absolutely support trans, but all these pronouns are an aesthetic nightmare."

And in September, Texas governor Greg Abbott, to whom Mr Musk donated $10,000 in 2014, claimed in a CNBC interview: "Elon had to get out of California because in part of the social policies in California, and Elon consistently tells me that he likes the social policies in the state of Texas."

Mr Musk rebuffed him, but ambiguously and mildly, with nothing like the fire and brimstone he has mustered against trade unions or tax proposals. "In general, I believe government should rarely impose its will upon the people, and, when doing so, should aspire to maximize their cumulative happiness," he said. "That said, I would prefer to stay out of politics."

Pro-capitalist and anti-union

Far more consistent has been Mr Musk's belief in free-market capitalism. Declarations of socialism notwithstanding, he is an ardent economic liberal who is deeply skeptical of government interventions in business.

That was the basis of his attack on Mr Biden's Build Back Better Act on Monday, saying the bill's tax rebate of up to $12,500 for people who buy electric cars is an "unnecessary" handout for an industry that is already taking off.

He backed that up with a revealing philosophical argument about the difference between corporations and nation states, framing them as different methods for allocating capital – that is, money and other resources needed to produce goods and services – to useful ends.

"It does not make sense to take the job of capital allocation away from people who have demonstrated great skill in capital allocation," he said, meaning business leaders, "and give it to an entity that has demonstrated very poor skill in capital allocation, which is the government.

"Government is simply the biggest corporation, with a monopoly on violence – and where you have no recourse. So how much money do you want to give that entity?"

You can see this thinking all through Mr Musk's history. He has strongly opposed trade unions, especially in his own companies, as a barrier to efficient operations, and skirmished repeatedly with Bernie Sanders over his proposals for an income tax on billionaires.

He claimed in October that Mr Biden "seems to be controlled by unions" and in 2018 tweeted that Tesla employees who attempted to unionise would lose their stock options, which regulators have claimed was illegal.

When he does endorse government intervention, he tends to favour measures that minimise government bureaucracy and avoid officials picking winners. Rather than subsidies for green industry, he wants a carbon tax, and says he lobbied the Biden administration to create one.

His argument is that the price of fossil fuels doesn't properly reflect their cost to the environment, meaning companies are basing their decisions on false information. Taxing carbon would correct that balance, allowing the free market to figure out in its own way how best to cut their emissions. That said, none of this stopped him from accepting billions of dollars in government subsidies for both Tesla and SpaceX.

Similarly, Mr Musk has long argued for a universal basic income to support human workers whose jobs, he believes, will soon be replaced with artificial intelligence (AI). In some ways that's a pretty left-wing idea, since it would involve spending enormous amounts of taxpayer money.

Yet it has also been favoured by some conservatives such as Richard Nixon and free market economists such as Milton Friedman, who felt it would prevent government bureaucrats deciding who deserves benefits and avoid punishing recipients for finding work.

Green power has often been Musk's red line

Another point of real consistency has been global warming and clean energy. Back in 2006, Mr Musk gave one of his biggest ever single donations – $75,000 – to Proposition 87, a California referendum campaign to impose a special tax on fossil fuel extractors.

Since then, emissions have often been his red line. In the early years of Donald Trump's presidency he joined a White House advisory council, saying that "the more voices of reason that the President hears, the better". But when Mr Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, Mr Musk quit, saying: "Climate change is real. Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world."

And when Mr Musk was persuaded to get into Bitcoin recently – a natural fit given his libertarian outlook and his penchant for technological solutions for political problems, to say nothing of his fondness for controversy – it was the currency's prodigious carbon emissions that led him to rethink.

"Tesla has suspended vehicle purchases using Bitcoin," he said in May. "We are concerned about rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for Bitcoin mining and transactions, especially coal, which has the worst emissions of any fuel.

"Cryptocurrency is a good idea on many levels and we believe it has a promising future, but this cannot come at a great cost to the environment."

Where Mr Musk has supported Mr Biden, that too was connected to carbon. Just after the inauguration, he told Fortune: "I'm super fired up that the new administration is focused on climate... I feel very optimistic about the future of sustainable energy with the new administration."

A technocrat with astral ambitions

Through all these issues, there is one strain of Mr Musk's politics that does not easily map onto traditional left-right devices: technocracy.

Back in the 1930s and ’40s, Mr Musk’s grandfather Joshua Haldeman was the Canadian leader of the original technocratic movement, which believed in replacing both politicians and bankers with whoever had the most expertise.

Elon Musk, capitalist extraordinaire, does not exactly take over his grandfather. Like the movement’s founder William Henry Smyth, though, his statements suggest a strong underlying belief that scientists and engineers can solve political problems that are intractable to others.

As the historian Jill Lepore has argued, Mr Musk inspires numerous followers with an exotic brand of techno-capitalism that she calls "Muskism". She says that many of its ideas are drawn from science fiction, sometimes very old science fiction, meaning that alongside rockets and cars it is also selling "visions of the future".

He thinks we may live in a simulation; he regularly references Scottish sci-fi author Iain M Banks; and he is especially preoccupied with the dangers of AI, which he calls "the most serious threat to the survival of the human race". He is worried not only about mass automation of white collar jobs but also the rise of a theoretical hyper-intelligent AI that is too powerful for humans to restrain.

"With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon," he said in 2014. "In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like – yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out."

Both that and global warming feed into Mr Musk's conviction that colonising other planets – becoming "a multi-planet species" – is crucial to humanity's long-term survival. However seriously you take that, it is clearly an important goal that shapes the rest of his politics.

Two things are notable here. One is that these issues are not very well known outside the tech industry, and to prioritise them suggests that you believe everyone else is missing a trick.

The other is that Musk is not attempting to meet that future through government action or massive collective institutions like formal movements or trade unions. Instead, he wants to solve it himself, through hierarchical top-down for-profit companies run by him where he decides how to allocate capital.

In other words, he is his own kind of technocrat: a talented engineer and huge nerd who thinks engineers and nerds can design better systems of government and economics than currently exist.

For evidence, look at his troubled Hyperloop project, which is trying to build a new form of public transport while eschewing any input from traditional transit experts, who say that he has essentially invented very inefficient buses. (It is also among the beneficiaries of Mr Biden’s infrastructure bill.)

WhenTIME magazine named Mr Musk its 2021 Person of the Year, it described him this way: “The man from the future where technology makes all things possible is a throwback to our glorious industrial past.” But many of the people who actually lived in that past reviled its industrialists as “robber barons”, and their misdeeds inspired regulations and social policies that are still in place today.

That is why Prof Lepore describes Muskism as containing "a lot of feudalism", saying: "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... 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."

Mr Musk has his own bullish answer to such claims. "To anyone I’ve offended, I just want to say, I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship," he said on Saturday Night Live in May. "Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?"

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