To be a man is to dominate others. This is what I absorbed as a boy: masculinity means mastery, power, control. To be socialized into manhood is to gain a love of hierarchy and a willingness to do whatever is necessary to preserve your own position within it. One of the many tragedies of this arrangement is that the people it makes miserable can nonetheless become its most loyal defenders. An extreme example from recent years is the incel phenomenon, whereby men who feel excluded from conventional masculinity develop a violent attachment to it. Nerd culture as a whole often exhibits the same dynamic. The nerd is not the opposite of the jock but a different iteration of the same logic. Nerds have their own flavor of macho. Rather than relinquishing the script, they find alternative ways to perform it.
When he was a boy, Elon Musk became a nerd. It started the usual way. Small and socially awkward, he got beat up a lot. Once, a group of kids at his school in South Africa kicked him in the head so many times that his brother didn’t recognize him. This gruesome detail appears early on in Elon Musk, the new authorized biography by the journalist and author Walter Isaacson, and there are many others like it. The young Musk was incessantly bullied, above all by his “swaggering and manly” father, Errol, an electromechanical engineer with a predilection for zany side hustles. Most successful was his illegal emerald business, which involved smuggling the stones out of Zambia, getting them cut in South Africa, and selling them to jewelers overseas. Less successful was his attempt to cheat the local casino in Pretoria by manipulating a roulette wheel with microwave energy. “His career had many ups and downs,” Isaacson writes, and these shifting fortunes, coupled with Errol’s extravagant tastes—for a period, he drove a Rolls-Royce convertible—kept the family sliding between the upper and lower rungs of the middle class. Regardless, Errol always found time to terrorize his eldest son. He never tired of telling Elon how worthless he was.
Musk took refuge in the repertoire of nerddom: science fiction, Dungeons and Dragons, video games, computer programming. These were avenues of escape for someone who was “bad at picking up social cues,” whose incomprehension of his fellow humans made him “like an observer from a different planet,” Isaacson writes. But they also, it seems, provided a terrain where the mandates of masculinity could be fulfilled, via conquests of a more cerebral sort. Strategy games became an obsession. He “relished the complex planning and competitive management of resources” involved in forging empires and extinguishing rivals in games like Civilization and Warcraft. “I am wired for war,” we hear Musk tell a friend at one point, just as he’s about to annihilate him virtually.
For nerds who dream of world domination, there is no better place to be than Silicon Valley. So that’s where Musk eventually ended up after leaving South Africa, joined by his brother, Kimbal. The two young men settled in Palo Alto at the perfect time: in the spring of 1995, just as the dot-com boom was about to begin. Netscape went public in August of that year. A paroxysm of venture capital investment ensued as everyone scrambled to carve out a lucrative piece of the swiftly commercializing Internet. With money from their parents, Musk and Kimbal founded Zip2, a company that made online city guides. They engaged in the usual start-up heroics: sleeping in their office, showering at the local Y, eating fast food for almost every meal.
As Zip2 grew, Musk got his first experience of being a boss. Isaacson describes him as a “demanding manager” who “drove himself relentlessly all day and through much of the night, without vacations” and “expected others to do the same.” He was also ruthless in his criticism of subordinates, with a fondness for humiliating them in front of their coworkers. Isaacson attributes Musk’s management style to his “weak empathy gene.” Elsewhere he elaborates that Musk lacks “the emotional receptors that produce everyday kindness and warmth” and that “his neural nets have trouble when dealing with human feelings.”
It is easy to believe that Musk is not a kind person, even if Isaacson’s framing of this fact relies a little too strongly on the quasi-clinical language that has become the preferred way to account for the behavior of unpleasant men. But perhaps Musk’s meanness is explained not only by the absence of empathy but by the presence of something else: the desire to dominate. Isaacson’s book is brimming with scenes of Musk acting the tyrant with his employees in the same way that his father did with him. Isaacson does not draw this connection, but he does supply a telling quote from Musk’s father, who, after proudly describing his parenting as “an extremely stern streetwise autocracy,” adds, “Elon would later apply that same stern autocracy to himself and others.”
Romantic relationships seem to have offered another proving ground for the budding autocrat. “There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy,” the philosopher Gillian Rose observed. One suspects that is a selling point for Musk, who appears to be as despotic in love as he is in work. “I am the alpha in this relationship,” he whispered to his first wife, Justine, while dancing at their wedding. Later, he would often tell her, “If you were my employee, I would fire you.” Here Isaacson makes the influence of Errol clear: both of Musk’s ex-wives confide that Musk, when angry, would utter the same words of abuse that his father once used with him. “Inside the man,” says Talulah Riley, his second wife, “he’s still there as a child, a child standing in front of his dad.”
In 1999 Compaq bought Zip2. Musk made $22 million and promptly bought a $1 million sports car—the McLaren F1—to celebrate. Then he rolled most of the rest into a new venture, X.com, which he hoped to turn into an online financial services juggernaut. In those days, many people still balked at entrusting their money to an Internet bank, and the name X.com didn’t help; focus groups said it sounded a little porny. But one feature in particular took off: the ability to send money through e-mail, which became popular on eBay.
A year later, the prospects for dot-coms darkened as the bubble began to deflate. Musk reluctantly agreed to a merger with his competitor Confinity. He would become the new firm’s largest shareholder and its CEO. Within months the board of directors had ousted him for a number of reasons, his domineering personality among them. Overthrown, Musk raged—“I had thoughts of assassination running through my head,” he confesses—but under the leadership of Peter Thiel, a Confinity cofounder who replaced Musk as CEO, the company thrived. In 2001 it was renamed PayPal; the following year, it was purchased by eBay. Musk had retained his stake in the firm, and the sale made him properly wealthy, with a payout of $250 million. Mollified, he made peace with Thiel, David Sacks, and the rest of the so-called PayPal Mafia, as the circle of founders and former employees is known, several of whom would come to play important parts in his later endeavors.
Silicon Valley is full of people who are rich because they were lucky. Until 2002 one could say the same of Musk. But it would be the two ventures that followed—SpaceX and Tesla—that confirmed his talent. The other members of the PayPal Mafia went on to become venture capitalists or create more websites. Musk, by contrast, poured millions into a rocket company and an electric car maker. “Silicon Valley wisdom would be that these were both incredibly crazy bets,” Thiel tells Isaacson. The bets paid off: SpaceX is currently exploring a sale of insider shares that would value the company at $175 billion; Tesla is worth around $800 billion.
How did Musk do it? How did a dot-commer become a titan of the aerospace and automotive industries? Isaacson also wrote the authorized biography of Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk is clearly intended as a sequel of sorts: even the cover art looks the same. The resemblance between the two men is frequently asserted by Isaacson, and there are, to be sure, clear similarities, such as their shared commitment to managerial ruthlessness. But at root, Jobs and Musk are very different figures who embody very different styles of capitalism.
Jobs was a postindustrial figure. He obsessed over the design of his products down to the last detail, but he didn’t take an interest in how they were manufactured. As Isaacson notes, the Apple cofounder “never visited his factories in China.” A native son of Silicon Valley—his summer job, at age twelve, was at a Hewlett-Packard plant—Jobs symbolized, and to some extent facilitated, its evolution from a region defined by the production of physical things to one organized around the creation of intellectual property. For the value of such property to be realized, plenty of physical things still had to be produced, but now production would be carried out elsewhere, by small armies of low-wage, subcontracted labor stationed all over the world. Behind Cupertino sits Zhengzhou, where workers assemble phones for Apple; behind Mountain View sits Nairobi, where workers moderate content for Facebook.
Musk broke with this trend. Soon after starting SpaceX in 2002, he discovered that it would be cheaper to make his own parts than to purchase them from third parties. Within a few years, Isaacson reports, the firm was “making in-house 70 percent of the components of its rockets.” Tesla would adopt the same strategy after Musk became its lead investor and chairman in 2004. Musk also insisted on keeping manufacturing local so as to maximize his control over the minutiae of production. When he needed batteries for his electric cars, he built a factory in Nevada to make them. Then he used the same factory to start making batteries for home energy storage, and shortly afterward bought a company that installs residential solar arrays that power the batteries. He wants an empire, not a niche.
As Isaacson remarks, this emphasis on vertical integration recalls the era of Henry Ford, before the car industry began to disaggregate into networks of suppliers in the 1970s. In fact, Fordism is the foundation of Musk’s business model. Putting everything under one roof enables him to indulge his enthusiasm for efficiency across the largest possible domain. This is what, it turns out, he is good at. Musk is not an especially creative futurist. (His greatest aspiration and his greatest fear—the colonization of Mars and artificial intelligence run amok, respectively—have been science fiction mainstays since the genre’s inception.) Nor is he a brilliant scientific mind. He is, however, an inspired rationalizer, with a fevered, all-devouring drive to optimize industrial processes.
Throughout the book we see Musk striding down factory floors, optimizing. When the assembly line keeps getting halted by safety sensors, he rips them out. When a robot is performing a task too slowly, he replaces it with humans. When he sees four bolts being drilled onto the underside of a chassis, he wants to know, can we try it with two? “Delete any part or process you can,” counsels one of Musk’s commandments. “Simplify and optimize,” instructs another.
But this is only half the story behind Musk’s success. The other essential ingredient, less emphasized by Isaacson, is his interpersonal prowess. Musk is extremely good at persuading other people that he is a genius. It may seem odd that someone so manifestly devoid of social graces can nonetheless be adept at winning people’s admiration and trust. But just as there are men whose ugliness can make them sexy (Serge Gainsbourg being the paradigmatic example), so there are men whose awkwardness can make them endearing. Watching old interviews with Musk, you can see the deft needlepoint of his anticharisma up close: the halting diction, the long pauses, the restless hands.
A white man with these qualities is culturally coded as intelligent, and Musk has made very lucrative use of this fact throughout his career. It has helped him secure big checks from friends and investors to keep his companies afloat during difficult moments. It has also enabled him to recruit a large and loyal fan base. He has always understood the importance of publicity, but the starring role is reserved for him, not this car or that rocket: live streaming his space launches is fine, but what really draws eyeballs is his commanding performance as a brilliant weirdo. This is the contemporary aspect of Musk that complements his old-school Fordism: if his industrialism evokes the previous century, his hypermediated persona places him firmly in our own.
Silicon Valley moguls like to claim that they are motivated by mission, not money. But in Musk’s case, you believe it. Although smirking adolescent irony is one of his favorite modes, he is equally prone to late-night dorm-room earnestness, especially when it comes to his entrepreneurial ambitions. “One of Elon’s greatest skills is the ability to pass off his vision as a mandate from heaven,” says Max Levchin of the Paypal Mafia, and this quality is in evidence throughout Isaacson’s biography. Musk is constantly talking about saving humanity, which he believes to be facing numerous existential threats: not just climate change but declining birth rates and, most pressingly, the prospect that a superintelligent AI will kill us all. Thus the need to colonize other planets and make the human race “multiplanetary.”
“My biggest concern is our trajectory,” he tells Mark Juncosa, a SpaceX executive, as reported by Isaacson. “Are we on a trajectory to get to Mars before civilization crumbles?” Yet the urgency that Musk brings to his business ventures seems to be driven less by the need to preserve the species than to preserve his sanity. According to Isaacson, Musk periodically suffers episodes of “depressive paralysis.” In one such episode from 2017, Tesla’s president, Jon McNeill, found Musk lying on the floor of a dark conference room. “It took McNeill a half-hour to get him moving,” Isaacson writes. If he didn’t think the fate of the world rested on his shoulders, he might never get up.
Then there are what Isaacson calls his “surges.” When Musk isn’t catatonically depressed, he is susceptible to bouts of mania. “In times of emotional darkness, Musk throws himself into his work,” Isaacson writes. He throws everyone else in, too. One of his favorite words as a boss is “hardcore,” by which he means having his workers work harder. “Please prepare yourself for a level of intensity that is greater than anything most of you have experienced before,” he warned Tesla employees before a speedup in 2012, in an email that Isaacson dubs a “quintessential” statement of Musk’s “creed.” The subject line: “Ultra hardcore.”
The purpose of going hardcore, Musk claims, is to “extrude shit out of the system.” (The anus is, incidentally, a major theme for him: if you say “Open butthole” to a Tesla, its charging port pops open. “For humans, orifices are a big deal,” says Musk.) Waste must be expunged, whether in the form of inefficiency, complacency, or laziness. During one such surge at SpaceX, he got a number of his employees out of bed in the middle of the night and demanded they race down to south Texas to stack a spacecraft and its booster rocket on top of a launchpad. There was no practical reason—it wasn’t ready to fly. But the “ginned-up crisis,” Isaacson writes, made Musk feel better. “I feel renewed faith in the future of humanity,” he announced.
The portrait presented in Elon Musk, then, is not only of a rationalizer but of something stranger: an irrational rationalizer. Musk is, on the one hand, the classic capitalist: boosting efficiency, squeezing his workers, pushing costs down and profits up. He serves the logic of capital accumulation with priestly devotion. But what compels this devotion is a doomed, frantic attempt to manage the symptoms of what one can only conclude is a profound sadness. He is desperate to extrude shit from the system, to be clean, to achieve the purifying discipline of the perfect factory. He believes the future of humanity depends on it. The problem is that the shit persists, no matter how strenuous his efforts at expelling it. If he ever actually succeeded, if the final catharsis were ever attained, you get the sense that he would die; that it would be him, along with his rockets, ejected into the void. “I am like a ripe shit, and the world is a gigantic asshole,” Martin Luther once declared, depressed and close to death. “We will both probably let go of each other soon.”
Why did Isaacson write a book about Musk? One answer is that he was asked. Isaacson has written several best-selling biographies of Great Men (and one Woman—the Nobel Prize–winning biochemist Jennifer Doudna), and Musk wanted to join the pantheon. He promised total access and ceded all control, just as Jobs had. What emerges from all those hours spent in the billionaire’s company and confidence is an admiring account, dominated by Musk’s voice and point of view, sharing its subject’s faith in his own greatness.
Isaacson does not deny that Musk has issues. Far from it: he is “callous,” “churlish,” “ruthless,” “authoritarian,” “abrasive.” But the core argument of the biography is that Musk is a genius and that these qualities are the price that must be paid:
Could you get the rockets to orbit or the transition to electric vehicles without accepting all aspects of him, hinged and unhinged? Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training. They can be reckless, cringeworthy, sometimes even toxic. They can also be crazy. Crazy enough to think they can change the world.
The last sentence is a nod to Jobs, whose famous line—“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do”—is one of the book’s epigraphs. The quote comes from the “Think Different” advertising campaign launched by Apple in 1997, which featured a voiceover from Richard Dreyfuss extolling countercultural values, accompanied by images of Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and Amelia Earhart, among others. Isaacson is keen to place Musk in the Jobsian line of “misfits,” “rebels,” and “troublemakers” who, as the commercial puts it, “have no respect for the status quo.”
At first glance, there is something incongruous about Isaacson’s embrace of Musk as an enemy of the establishment, given the author’s high standing within it. Isaacson is the consummate insider, well networked in the worlds of media and politics, with a résumé that includes stints running Time, CNN, and the Aspen Institute, a prominent think tank that convenes a Davos-like gathering in Colorado every year. If Musk endangers the status quo, Isaacson would have a lot to lose.
But Musk, on closer inspection, is a particular kind of rebel. He has defied some aspects of capitalist conventional wisdom—namely, that cars and rockets are bad businesses—but only in the service of becoming a better capitalist. This is the sort of bounded contrarianism that gets you invited to the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Still, Musk’s petulance threatens to make him a hard sell as a ruling-class sage. The belief in the benevolence of the elite, which is the chief ideological product marketed by the masters of the universe at their regular caucuses in the Rockies and the Alps, is difficult to sustain in the face of Musk’s propensity for malice. Isaacson is well aware; his response is that the benefits Musk provides to society outweigh the costs. “Could he have been more chill and still be the one launching us toward Mars and an electric-vehicle future?” Isaacson asks. The answer, we are led to believe, is no.
A more sober view of the magnitude of Musk’s accomplishments might alter the calculus. There is no doubt that Tesla is the leader of the current electric vehicle boom. It sells the most units worldwide, although perhaps not for long: Chinese firms now account for half of all electric vehicles sold globally. But battery-powered cars are an old technology—the first one appeared in the 1880s—and it seems likely that they would have gone mainstream at some point, given the need to reduce carbon emissions. Interestingly, Musk agrees. “Building mass-market electric cars was inevitable,” he tells Isaacson. “It would have happened without me.”
“But becoming a space-faring civilization is not inevitable,” he continues. It requires “human agency”; namely, him. Musk is moved to this reflection after SpaceX completed a launch that put four people into orbit in 2021. This was not exactly a world-historical achievement: the Soviets managed to do the same with Yuri Gagarin sixty years earlier. Musk is not operating at the bleeding edge of space exploration—it is NASA, which Isaacson maligns as a bunch of hapless hidebound bureaucrats, that has performed multiple unmanned Mars landings, as well as dozens of other successful missions that have increased our understanding of the solar system. Rather, what distinguishes SpaceX is its efficiency. Thanks to Musk’s relentless economizing, the company has found a way to get stuff into orbit more cheaply, which has enabled it to become a major government contractor—outcompeting less efficient rivals like Boeing—and start a satellite Internet service called Starlink. Changing the cost structure of the launch industry may someday enable Musk to colonize Mars, but this outcome is far from assured.
If Isaacson inflates the scale of Musk’s contributions to humanity, he also understates the amount of damage inflicted on actual humans along the way. While the entrepreneur’s personality flaws are discussed in detail, the fallout in Elon Musk mostly consists of people getting their feelings hurt. The more severe forms of injury that follow from Musk’s behavior, such as the mangling of production workers at his plants, receive far less attention. Isaacson makes a passing mention of the high injury rate at the Fremont assembly line, but the unsafe working conditions at Tesla factories—an issue raised repeatedly by government officials and union organizers in the US and overseas—does not interest him. Among the 129 interviews he lists in the back of the book, friends, investors, executives, and managers predominate; not a single assembly-line worker is included. Isaacson also neglects to discuss the long, well-documented history of anti-Black racism at the Fremont factory, which is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The federal agency claims that Black workers have endured “racial abuse, pervasive stereotyping, and hostility” since 2015, including being called “variations of the N-word, ‘monkey,’ ‘boy,’ and ‘black b*tch.’”
Isaacson’s cost-benefit analysis of Musk as moderately heinous but indispensable to the human race is most acutely tested in the book’s final hundred pages, which deal with the billionaire’s acquisition of Twitter. Musk is an inveterate and intemperate tweeter. Social media has long been an important factor in his success: like Donald Trump, he has used it to make a spectacle of himself, allowing him to cultivate a wide following and ensure a permanent place in the news cycle.
Also like Trump, Musk tweets without inhibition, presenting a high-definition look at the deeper folds of his psyche. His purchase and subsequent overhaul of the social network have offered further insight into precisely what kind of a person he is. In another writer’s hands, the saga would’ve presented a rich store of material with which to clarify the full contours of Musk’s character. In Isaacson’s, it causes a certain awkwardness. What he wants to give us is Musk as antihero: dark, defective, but our protagonist nonetheless. Inconveniently, the Twitter affair is the story of a villain.
Nobody knows why Musk bought Twitter, not even Musk. But we know what he’s done with it since. He fired 75 percent of the workforce within the first three weeks. He extended working hours, slashed benefits, and imposed his “hardcore” work tempo. He also conducted a witch hunt to purge internal critics, Isaacson discloses, instructing his lieutenants to comb through the Slack messages and social media posts of Twitter workers for signs of disloyalty.
But it is in the realm of content moderation—the vexed matter of what actually appears on the site—that Musk has been most keen to exercise his sovereignty. To talk clearly about how Musk has changed Twitter’s content, one has to be able to talk clearly about Musk’s politics. They are not complicated. He was once a typical tech-baron centrist who disliked taxes and regulations and liked Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Then, around 2020, he became openly reactionary. He denounced Covid restrictions as “fascist,” started inveighing against the “woke mind virus,” and began promoting conspiracy theories incubated on far-right message boards. Transphobia came to occupy a central place in his worldview—a development not unrelated to the fact that he has a trans daughter who wants nothing to do with him. (She hates him because she’s a “communist,” Musk informs Isaacson.)
Since purchasing Twitter, Musk has remolded the social network to align more closely with his beliefs. His first moves were to reinstate two right-wing accounts—belonging to the humor site The Babylon Bee and the pundit Jordan Peterson—that had been suspended for transphobic tweets. Many more followed. Within two months of the Musk acquisition, NBC News reported that hundreds of “right-wing activists and QAnon adherents” had seen their accounts restored, while “a series of bans of left-wing accounts” had taken place. The result has been a predictable surge in racism, homophobia, and other bigotries. In April 2023 a team led by the computer scientist Keith Burghardt published a peer-reviewed study that found “hate speech rose dramatically” after Musk bought the platform, an assessment that has been echoed by several other researchers and organizations.
Isaacson agrees that Musk has gone through a “political evolution,” but he is reluctant to say what exactly Musk has evolved into. He concedes Musk’s “anti-woke fervor and occasional endorsements of alt-right conspiracy theories” but insists that these are intermittent, “not his default setting”—a by-product of his “mercurial” and “impulsive” nature rather than any coherent ideological commitments. Since Isaacson cannot admit that Musk is right-wing, his account of Twitter’s transformation is similarly evasive. Musk’s new content regime is described as an effort “to open the aperture to more raucous free speech.”
Further, Isaacson thinks Musk’s approach has been vindicated. Twitter, despite predictions of its imminent demise after the takeover, is still standing, Isaacson notes, its staff winnowed to a “kernel of driven engineers,” adding “features faster than it ever had before.” But by any measure, Musk’s tenure has been disastrous. Financially, the company is a mess: once a stable if stagnant business, it now needs to cover the interest payments on the $12.5 billion in debt that Musk incurred for the purchase, at the same time as cash flow is cratering due to an advertiser exodus. In October 2023 Reuters reported that ad revenue had declined each month since Musk’s takeover—at least 55 percent year over year. Usage has fallen while service outages have increased. When Musk cohosted Ron DeSantis’s launch of his presidential campaign in May 2023, the event was derailed by technical glitches. According to Fidelity, Twitter is now worth only $15 billion, about a third of the $44 billion that Musk paid for it back in October 2022.
Musk has vaporized an immense amount of value in a remarkably short period of time, and he can’t seem to help himself from going further. His renaming of Twitter to X in July 2023 “wiped out anywhere between $4 billion and $20 billion,” Bloomberg reported. This is creative destruction at its finest: one would be hard-pressed to find a destroyer more creative than Musk. The world’s richest man is dismembering one of the world’s most important websites in large part because he believes letting people choose their pronouns will prevent the human race from colonizing Mars. “Unless the woke-mind virus, which is fundamentally antiscience, antimerit, and antihuman in general, is stopped, civilization will never become multiplanetary,” Musk says to Isaacson.
Musk’s mental state has grown steadily more surrealistic in the months since the biography appeared. Onstage at the New York Times DealBook Summit in November 2023, when asked about companies pulling ads from X after his endorsement of an antisemitic conspiracy theory, Musk responded with indignation. “If somebody’s going to try to blackmail me with advertising, blackmail me with money, go fuck yourself,” he told a perplexed Andrew Ross Sorkin. Musk has evidently reached the point in his development where even the slightest check on his sovereignty infuriates. For years he had managed to bind his will to power and the profit motive together into a productive partnership. The ongoing Twitter debacle suggests that this concordance is coming apart, that his inner despot is disencumbering itself of the discipline of capital.
One of the reasons that people become entrepreneurs, the economist Joseph Schumpeter once wrote, is because they want to possess a “private kingdom.” “What may be attained by industrial or commercial success is still the nearest approach to medieval lordship possible to modern man,” he argued. There is an anti-modern impulse to Musk, a craving for lordship that can’t be entirely satisfied within the confines of a capitalist economy. A king doesn’t have advertisers or shareholders or customers, and Musk, if he continues on his current trajectory, may very well be abandoned by all three. Aristotle says a good ending should be surprising but inevitable. It’s possible to imagine multiple finales for Musk that meet these criteria, but the story always begins the same way. Once upon a time in Pretoria, there was a boy who wanted to be a man.