Elon Musk and Confessions of an Ayn Rand Reader

Elon Musk and Confessions of an Ayn Rand Reader

As boys, we dream of being John Galt or Howard Rourke. As men, most of us get ahead. If we don’t, that’s a problem.

I’m tired of reading about Elon Musk and Twitter. If you think about it, neither the spoiled, corrupt serial entrepreneur nor the corrupt social media network he bought matters so much in a world where millions are fighting for sheer survival against evil imperialists, starvation, or other disasters.

However, I also admit to the voyeuristic reactions that make me look at the headlines about Musk and Twitter, where I can get very agitated when going through a car wreck. Will they destroy themselves in a meteorite? Will they turn things around against all odds like action heroes staring at the end of the world?

Upon reflection, I realized this cognitive dissonance that doesn’t seem/should sound. It goes back to the feeling I had when I was in my late teens gorging on Ayn Rand novels like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

The characters in those stories and the philosophy that drives them — ostensibly called “objectivism” — bear a superficial resemblance to people like Musk. This may explain why Musk, the founder of Tesla Inc. , and Amazon.com Inc. The titan Jeff Bezos and quite a few other super-powerful – and often male – tech tycoons courted Ayn Rand.

Rand’s heroes, like architect Howard Roark in Fountainhead or Ubermensch capitalist John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, are caricatures of what Musk and his ilk aspire to be. They are relentless visionaries, very masculine and very unique. They are in it for themselves, driven by the unapologetic egocentrism that rejects the serf morality that ordinary pencil pushers employ on their petty farms.

In this worldview, anyone who does not understand the single-minded genius of Roark, Galt, Musk, or Bezos belongs by default to the antagonists in Rand’s novels. These are the middlemen and the dismissive bureaucrats, the socialists and the parasites, the unproductive and deceitful teenagers and the “cynics,” the cowards and conformists.

Roark’s vision is an aesthetic—the epitome of elegant, simple architectural lines that make the human spirit soar, but for that very reason it cannot be appreciated by lesser mortals as spiritual dwarves. Musk’s vision is an almost otherworldly reiteration of yours. His big idea is to prepare humanity’s escape from our home planet by colonizing Mars.

Once you make up your mind about this insolence, all sorts of things make an odd kind of sense. Musk co-founded one company, SpaceX, to build the rockets that will one day take us to Mars, with the accompanying satellite communications (Starlink) we’ll need. He has another company, The Boring Company, that digs tunnels, so we can live and squeeze under the surface of Mars to avoid radiation. He’s running another car, a Tesla, that will harness sunlight to get us moving. In order to get our human cognition to adapt to these adventures, Musk is nursing Neuralink, which dabbles in brain implants.

Mars is. He tells us that Musk’s vision is named after a Roman god. I imagine Rourke and Galt (all of Rand’s heroes are atheists) celebrating muskets as they climb onto SpaceX’s flagship saucer with him to embark on that next frontier. Musk’s autism, which he admits candidly and humorously, makes his focus more laser-like. I had long assumed that Rourke and Gallt also had Asperger’s.

It should be clear by now why Roarks, Galts, or Mask capture the imagination of teenage boys like the one I used to be, or the one who still hides inside of me now. They are paragons who rebel against — and blow away — the limits of the monotony and perseverance of the mainstream. It is heroic and romantic. We are rooting for them. We imagine being them.

But as boys grow up, some of them mature, too—even I, in my fifties, can feel the beginnings of that process. Attempts to re-read Rand reveal her characters to be one-dimensional and flat. The boy’s imagination ran wild in their speeches. The middle-aged man inadvertently nodded during a speech that continued for pages of repeated cliches.

With an overwhelming sense of disappointment, the mature reader makes several remarks. First, Rand was a mediocre writer. Secondly, its characters are actually boring. Third, the plots that Roarks and Galts wannabes like Musk try to emulate are destined to meet a fate worse than failure: the sobering reality.

In this real world, Tesla turns into just another car company, which its first-generation employees eventually leave in disillusionment. The Boring Company is already getting boring. SpaceX seems self-absorbed. Neuralink is science fiction. As for Twitter, it’s just a site where media types like myself sponsor their business while hordes of trolls and bots cast doubt and spread conspiracy theories. Ordinary people do not need to waste time on this.

As for Musk, what initially seemed like romantic intensity suddenly seemed sheer sadomasochism. Sure, Musk brags about how he sleeps on his companies’ office floors because he works so hard. He demands that his comrades do the same. So he fires half of Twitter’s staff, then writes emails to the rest, in the middle of the night, challenging them to be the “hardcore” or get rid of his spaceship.

These employees are not randy rednecks. In their own way, they may be just as talented and perfect as Musk. But they also have families, lives, and bills to pay. They’d be forgiven for rolling their eyes.

Thus Rand’s seduction of the adolescent recedes, while the wisdom of ancient literature comes to the fore. Musk, Roark, and Galt begin to look as if more men succumb to arrogance and become trapped in desperate binges. How will they react?

When a kitsch architect messes up his ingenious, public housing project, Rourke dynamites it. No poor family will live there. When Galt has had enough of the crooks, he gathers all the great inventors and creators of the country and strikes at Galt Galt, somewhere in Colorado, until the outside world becomes a wasteland. Musk may also find his own way of blowing up Twitter, or much more.

This is not the romantic heroism of creative genius yearning for liberation. It’s the sugar crash of narcissists who wander off on ego trips, throw tantrums and leave in a rage. For nostalgia’s sake, I’ll keep Rand in my bookshelf and Musk in my peripheral vision. But there are more important things that deserve my attention.

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering European politics. A former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist, he is the author of Hannibal and Me.

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