June 14, 2024

Elon Musk’s Creepy Workplace Is Techno-Feudalism in Action

Multiple harassment allegations illuminate why the tech mogul has embraced Trumpism.

Jeet Heer
Elon Musk speaks at the Milken Institute’s Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, on May 6, 2024.(Apu Gomes / Getty Images)

On Thursday, Tesla shareholders voted to grant company CEO Elon Musk a pay package of roughly $56 billion—a staggering bounty that was all the more remarkable because it came just two days after The Wall Street Journal released a blockbuster report alleging a pattern of workplace sexual harassment that would, in a more just world, render the tech magnate unemployable. There is a startling discrepancy between Musk’s unprecedentedly lavish compensation and the sordid behavior reported by not just the Journal but also other news outlets. This gulf illustrates the aura of invincibility that Musk enjoys as one of the world’s richest men. The allegations also clarify Musk’s recent political shift, as the onetime supporter of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden increasingly aligns himself with Trumpism. As Trump notoriously said about sexual assault in the 2005 Access Hollywood tape, “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Musk and other Silicon Valley plutocrats increasingly see themselves as not just businessmen but stars, which apparently means they too feel that they do “can do anything.” This creates a natural affinity for Trumpian politics and its promise of rich-guy impunity.

The latest allegations against Musk are merely the most recent manifestation of a recurring problem. In May 2022, Business Insider reported that

SpaceX, the aerospace firm founded by Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest man, paid a flight attendant $250,000 to settle a sexual misconduct claim against Musk in 2018…. The attendant worked as a member of the cabin crew on a contract basis for SpaceX’s corporate jet fleet. She accused Musk of exposing his erect penis to her, rubbing her leg without consent, and offering to buy her a horse in exchange for an erotic massage.

Despite the settlement, Musk denies any wrongdoing in this case and has even made the claim, which is contradicted by evidence, that he didn’t use flight attendants on his SpaceX jets.

The Wall Street Journal report, written by Joe Palazzolo and Khadeeja Safdar, revisits the flight attendant’s story and also documents three other cases. The most in-depth one involves a recent college grad who had previously been an intern and who was hired by Musk in 2017. According to the newspaper, Musk

texted her often and invited her to come over to his Los Angeles mansion at night on multiple occasions. Sometimes she accepted his invitations, but friends said she told them at the time that his behavior made her job harder. She eventually moved off Musk’s executive team, according to friends she told and to people familiar with her time at SpaceX. The woman left the company in 2019.

This woman seems to have made some sort of private settlement with Musk, because she issued a statement via her lawyers, who also work for Musk, disputing some of the Journal’s reporting.

The two other incidents described in the Journal are:

Another woman who left the company in 2013 alleged in exit negotiations with SpaceX human resources and legal executives that Musk had asked her to have his babies.

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A fourth woman had a month-long sexual relationship with Musk in 2014 while she directly reported to him. The relationship ended badly, leading to recriminations over text and email as she left the company and signed an agreement prohibiting her from discussing her work for Musk.

The day after the WSJ broke this story, Axios reported: “SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk were hit on Wednesday with a lawsuit from eight former employees, who alleged they were illegally fired for raising concerns about sexual harassment and discrimination against women at the company.”

These allegations are serious and would in most cases destroy a career, but Musk has little to worry about. As the massive pay package that Tesla shareholders voted to bestow on him demonstrates, Musk lives beyond the normal rules of accountability. A star CEO can do anything. Musk is beloved by not just his shareholders but also the corporate boards that are, in theory, designed to serve as a check on his power. The Wall Street Journal has reported that while some on the boards of Tesla and SpaceX worry about Musk’s use of illicit drugs (LSD, cocaine, ecstasy, mushrooms, and ketamine), other board members join the CEO in his pharmaceutical adventures.

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SpaceX has rules against sexual harassment and also tests its employees for drug abuse. But Musk, despite the company’s claims to the contrary, seems immune from these rules. He’s a law unto himself, presiding over his companies (the social media firm formerly known as Twitter but now given the Muskian designation X as well as Tesla and SpaceX) like a feudal lord dominating his serfs. Musk’s alleged sexual misconduct even calls to mind the supposed medieval practice (whose historical reality is the subject of much scholar contention) of droit du seigneur: the customary privilege of feudal lords to deflower and sometimes impregnate the young women under his command, particularly before the consummation of their marriage.

Recently, some economists and social theorists, notably former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, trying to describe the extreme inequality and monopoly dominance characteristic of high tech have started using the term “techno-feudalism.” The concept is regrettably nebulous in economic terms, since tech still operates under the rules of capitalism. But techno-feudalism is perhaps more apt as a description of a cultural milieu rather than an economic form: Certainly, figures like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk carry themselves with the unbridled hauteur of the feudal lord more than the careful, calculating mindset of the classic haute bourgeoisie. And there is something abjectly servile about the abasement of shareholders and corporate boards to Musk. If nothing else, Musk has invented a new road to serfdom.

Musk’s political evolution has been the subject of much discussion. Musk likes to call himself a centrist, and The New York Times claims that his politics are a “bundle of contradictions and inconsistencies.”

He twice voted for Obama (who in his 2015 State of the Union address named Tesla as one of the companies creating the jobs of the future) as well as for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. Tesla and SpaceX have both relied heavily on government spending—particularly in the case of Tesla, for which the government has subsidized technologies that will help reduce carbon emissions. Musk himself used to be something of a hero in environmental circles for his role in boosting electric vehicles.

But since Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, Musk has steadily moved to the right, using his social media platform to spread the racist and antisemitic conspiracy theory that there is a “great replacement” secretly planned to displace the white race in Europe and the US with immigrants from Asia and Africa. He has also disputed the claim that the far-right Alternative for Germany party, widely seen as a neofascist formation, is extremist. The Wall Street Journal reports that Musk has a “growing alliance” with Donald Trump and might have a role as a presidential adviser if Trump returns to the White House.

There are no doubt many intertwined reasons for Musk’s shift to the right, not least of which is his hostility to the left, which he blames for the fact that one of his children, a transgender daughter, no longer speaks to him.

But the allegations of sexual misconduct also provide a clue that parallels the family drama with his estranged child: As feudal lord, Musk feels entitled to have his own way in everything, from the gender identity of his children to the sexual favors of his underlings. For such a rampant egotist, any sort of liberal or egalitarian politics—even in so mild a form as Joe Biden’s presidency—is anathema. Hence Musk’s embrace of Trump, another would-be patriarchal tyrant who believes that when you are the boss, they should let you get away with anything.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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