By Dada Vedaprajinananda
An August 21, 2023, article in The New Yorker magazine by Ronan Farrow paints a disturbing picture of Elon Musk’s powerful role in some of the most vital areas of public concern. However, as troubling as Musk’s activities are, they are only one example of a larger problem.
The article entited “Elon Musk’s Shadow Rule” begins with a look at Ukraine’s dependence on Musk’s Space X internet service for both military and civilian communication. As Musk began expressing pro-Russian views, Ukrainian commanders on the front lines found their Internet access blocked. Musk even floated his own “peace plan” which heavily favored the Russians. Defense department officials had to beg Musk to continue the service in Ukraine. Similarly, Musk who is highly dependent on Chinese manufacturing for his Tesla components, also tried to curry favor with the Chinese government by proposing outlines for handling the Taiwan issue.
Farrow notes that Musk is not the first wealthy capitalist to have gotten involved in statecraft, citing J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, George Soros, and Sheldon Adelson as previous examples. But away from the international stage, the US government is dependent on Musk in the areas of manned space missions and satellite launching. In addition, the Biden administration’s plan to expand the use of electric vehicles currently relies heavily on the Tesla network of chargers.
To make matters worse, Musk’s erratic takeover of Twitter and his descent into alt-right opinions, amidst reports of his bouts with depression and drug addiction, should raise alarm bells for anyone wondering why so much power is in the hands of one eccentric private citizen.
If Musk was the only instance of a private interest dominating a sector of public activity, then it would be a problem but not catastrophic. However, most of the key activities of the US and indeed the entire developed world are now in the hands of entities whose corporate boards and management do not always act in the interest of the wider public or the future of the planet.
In fact, all components of our vital infrastructure are now in the hands of large corporations whose bottom line is profit and not public welfare. The internet, which was originally the work of the public sector (the military) is, in the USA at least, almost completely in the hands of private telecommunications corporations, and the public’s attempt to regulate it, and keep it working in the public interest by maintaining net neutrality, for example, have been fraught with difficulty.
Our future depends on whether we can come to grips with a changing climate, yet our mineral extraction and energy production is once again placed in the hands of corporate boards who would certainly like to “drill baby drill” rather than heed calls to cut down on our dependence on fossil fuels. Airlines, now a backbone of modern transportation, are not only privately owned but in the hands of a shrinking monopoly.
Even time-honored institutions which have long been part of our public sector, such as education or the postal service, have been attacked by the advocates of privatization. During the Trump administration, the appointment of Betsy DeVoss as the Secretary of Education and Louis Dejoy as the Postmaster General, signaled the administration’s hope that this trend could be pushed to the limit by installing advocates of privatization at the head of public bodies.
Whether it is mineral extraction, energy production, communications, and transportation, they are all, with a few outliers, run by corporations. In this set-up the only way the public can have a say is through regulation, which has become weakened in the present climate. Indeed, the recent railway accident in East Palestine, Ohio, could have been avoided had safety regulations not been weakened.
Regulation can never be completely effective when the institutions which are supposed to do the regulating are often populated with former employees of the companies they are supposed to oversee. But the bigger problem with regulation is the assumption that the government is stronger than the industries that it is trying to regulate. The government is, after all, elected and works under the influence of lobbyists who have brought huge sums of money to bear on the election process, and the elected officials routinely honor the wishes of the financial interests who made their election possible. Viewed from a distance it looks like a government trying to control a corporate giant is like a tail trying to wag a dog.
A better way to roll back privatization, reduce dependency on people like Elon Musk, and make sure that the wider public good is promoted would be to tackle the problem directly. We need to look at our society and mark out the areas that are truly important for the overall welfare of all and to firmly place those sectors under public ownership and management. The specter of the Soviet Union is often raised when anyone will venture such an opinion, but we can certainly do better than that failed experiment. If our key industries are managed by immediate local governments or public bodies (such as the Tennessee Valley Authority) and if we can elect honest people who are free of any obligations to outside financial interests to run these institutions, then we can certainly make sure that our society will be headed towards a bright future. We do not need messianic oligarch captains of industry to guide us.