Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.


SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk poses on the red carpet of the Axel Springer Award ceremony on December 1, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo: Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images)

A Horrible Billionaire Unconcerned With Human Suffering Is a Fitting Choice for 2021 'Person of the Year'

Musk does perhaps appropriately embody what was an all-around sick year in terms of capitalism and the related maladies of coronavirus and climate change.

Belén Fernández

 by Al-Jazeera English

Time magazine recently chose Elon Musk—the "richest private citizen in history" and the CEO of rocket firm SpaceX and electric vehicle company Tesla—as its "2021 Person of the Year". In the first paragraph of the lengthy profile of Musk accompanying the accolade, we learn that the man "tosses satellites into orbit and harnesses the sun", sends the stock market soaring and swooning with a "flick of his finger," and also "likes to live-tweet his poops."

Might it not be more charming, then, to select a Person of the Year who is actually concerned with alleviating human misery—as opposed to someone chasing a dystopian vision of an exclusive future universe run by and for Elon Musk?

The second paragraph of the profile is devoted to further exploring this last theme:

"'Just dropping some friends off at the pool', the 50-year-old zillionaire informed his 66 million Twitter followers on the evening of Nov. 29, having previously advised that at least half his tweets were 'made on a porcelain throne'".

Presumably, the excremental intro is meant to project a down-to-earth, human dimension onto the tyrannical South African entrepreneur who wants to colonise Mars and has officially appointed himself "Technoking" of Tesla. Call it poop-washing, if you will.

For the next zillion or so paragraphs of the profile, Time magazine proceeds with its grotesque apologetics on behalf of 2021's Chosen Person—explaining that, while Musk is "easily cast as a hubristic supervillain, lumped in with the tech bros and the space playboys", he is ultimately "different." This assessment appears directly after a discussion of Musk's downplaying of the coronavirus threat and violation of local pandemic regulations to keep his factories running—all of which, Time muses, suggests that "the vast expanse of human misery can seem an afterthought to a man with his eyes on Mars".

Might it not be more charming, then, to select a Person of the Year who is actually concerned with alleviating human misery—as opposed to someone chasing a dystopian vision of an exclusive future universe run by and for Elon Musk? Granted, this is the same magazine that named Adolf Hitler "Man of the Year" in 1938.

Marveling at "the man who aspires to save our planet and get us a new one to inhabit," Time asserts that Musk is "arguably the biggest private contributor to the fight against climate change". For a more grounded view of reality, consider the words of Max Ajl, author of the acclaimed book, A People's Green New Deal, who remarked in an email to me that: "if capitalist destruction of the ecology were to take on human form, it would look like the Afrikaner aspiring cosmonaut Elon Musk".

Ajl went on to observe, "In true apartheid form, spaceship rides envisioned by the Tesla tycoon will emit more CO2 in a few minutes than poor people emit in their entire lives."

Capitalism, of course, is fundamentally anti-human—as, it seems, is Musk, whose own brother and business partner Kimbal acknowledges in the Time profile that Elon's "gift is not empathy with people".

Case in point: in October, a federal jury ordered Tesla to pay almost $137m to a Black ex-employee who, as the Washington Post notes, claimed workers were subjected to "a scene 'straight from the Jim Crow era'", characterised by rampant racist abuse and supervisors who refused to address the issue.

Then in December, six women filed separate suits against Tesla for alleged sexual harassment in the workplace—with many of them contending that Musk's own frequent lewd behaviour on Twitter only encouraged sexual taunts and other abuse in a male-dominated work environment.

Add to this Musk's willful endangerment of employees' lives during the pandemic and other violations of labour laws—including his underhanded machinations and threats against workers wishing to unionise—and one begins to worry about how that whole Mars idea will pan out.

But anyway, why should workers bother trying to exert a modicum of control over their existences when the "brooding, blue-skinned man-god"—words courtesy of Time—already knows what is best for them? Again, it appears that Musk and only Musk knows what is good for everyone—like when he implied to Time that, were he to pay US government taxes proportionate to his astronomical wealth, this would "not result in, actually, the good of the people", because the US government is "inherently not a good steward of capital".

Never mind that this same government has also flung its capital at—what do you know?—Musk's own projects, including via a critical $465m federal loan to Tesla in 2009. In fact, Musk and his companies have benefitted over the years from billions of dollars in public subsidies and government contracts. And yet, when US Senator Ron Wyden tweeted in November in favour of a Billionaires Income Tax, Musk tweeted back in Twitter shorthand with the mature and relevant suggestion that Wyden's profile picture looked like he had just had an orgasm.

The Time tribute does mention these incidents, but manages to cast them as the fallout of a fascinatingly complex mind: that of a "clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad" as well as a "shy South African with Asperger's syndrome, who escaped a brutal childhood and overcame personal tragedy" to pursue "cosmic ambition". Muskian petulant tyranny is euphemised into a "hard-driving style" that takes a "legendary" toll on his staff. Tesla is said to maintain a "hard-charging approach".

But while Time's selection of Musk as its person of 2021 has rightfully generated controversy, he does perhaps appropriately embody what was an all-around sick year in terms of capitalism and the related maladies of coronavirus and climate change.

And as the world's richest man tweets away from his porcelain throne into an ever more brutal future of elite despotism and collective tragedy, it seems it is a very fecal matter, indeed.

© 2021 Al-Jazeera English
Belén Fernández

Belén Fernández

Belén Fernández is the author of "The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work." She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, Al Akhbar English and many other publications.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'Dangerous Moment': Record Deforestation in Amazon Shows Stakes of Brazil Election

The runoff between Bolsonaro and Lula, warned one activist, is "not just about the future of Brazil, the result will have an impact on all of humanity."

Jessica Corbett ·

At Least 13 Migrant Justice Activists Arrested Protesting Court's Anti-DACA Ruling

"We need Congress to act on citizenship now," said one protester, "so we no longer have to live in fear and can continue to prosper in this country we call home."

Brett Wilkins ·

Advocates Tell Canada's High Court to End Asylum Deal With US Over Safety Concerns

"The United States is not a safe place for refugee claimants escaping persecution," said one human rights campaigner.

Julia Conley ·

Democracy Defenders Plan 70+ Actions to Protect 'Our Freedoms and Our Vote' From GOP Assault

Trump and his allies "incited a violent attack on the Capitol in order to overturn the 2020 election and stop the peaceful transfer of power," organizers warn. "The same individuals are continuing work to sabotage our elections."

Kenny Stancil ·

Decrying 'Horrible Madness of War,' Irish MEPs Call for Diplomacy in Ukraine

"Most people seem to get off on the fact that it's escalating," said socialist MEP Clare Daly, who condemned the E.U. for doing nothing to prevent Russia's war from becoming "a wider horror."

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo