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Counter Culture

Elon Musk and the culture of greed pride

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Elon Musk and the culture of greed pride

Elon Musk’s deal to buy Twitter profile is “temporarily on hold”.

Elon Musk’s deal to buy Twitter profile is “temporarily on hold”. | Photo Credit: Dado Ruvic/REUTERS

If we take seriously the premise that cinema is reflective of the times it is embedded in, then the sudden expression of money and luxury as heroic ends must be investigated. What is this newly acquired allure of avarice, the recasting of greed as a virtue?

“GREED is good. Greed is progress,” says Rocky (Yash), the bearded, swag-slicked, cigarette-smoking hero of K.G.F.: Chapter 2, in a moment that is at once both an explanation for his actions and an exclamation of his heroism. The Kannada film—which opened the floodgates of money for its producers and whose Hindi-dubbed release is touted to become the second highest grossing Hindi film ever, earning over Rs.400 crore and throwing Hindi cinema into an existential tailspin—perches its character’s heroism on the mantle of avarice by refusing to distinguish greed from progress.

This greed curdles from a back story involving Rocky’s mother, whose dying wish was to see her son moneyed and, thus, powerful. This itself is curious for money is not inherently powerful. But within our neoliberal construct, it can be traded in for power: electoral victories, corporate and media buyouts, and patronising culture. The moral question of money—of how much is too much, of when does hunger become gluttony—can thus be extended to power.

This is a stark subversion of the dying mother figure, who in films such as Ganga Ki Saugand (1978), Trishul (1978), and Disco Dancer (1982) was used to exact vengeance on the rich, to bring down empires of money and landholding, and to seek justice. This sentimental trope is now reversed, with Rocky’s empire of gold bulging under his benevolent dictatorship, with the blessings of his dead mother.

If we take seriously the premise that cinema is reflective of the times it is embedded in , then the consummate overhaul of this trope, of the sudden expression of money and luxury as heroic ends, must be investigated, too. What is this newly acquired allure of avarice, the recasting of greed as a virtue? Even in Pushpa: The Rise, last year’s Telugu blockbuster—whose Hindu dub far outperformed the Hindi tent-pole releases such as 83 and even Sooryavanshi in some cinema circuits—the hero’s steep rise towards money is shorn of any act of vengeance. The gutter-to-gold assembly line here is motivated by the hero’s desire to rise above his station, to paper over his bastard-dom. The modern hero seems to desire money with a fervour that is not attached to revenge but is a self-actualising wish. A natural, recursive, insatiable urge. Not a means to an end but an end in and of itself.

Alongside the blinding noise of K.G.F. was also Elon Musk lugging at the rug under Twitter’s feet, waving his wad of cash, blowing raspberries at sceptics. In one fell swoop, he bought Twitter for $44 billion—part of it to be paid in cash and part of it to be paid with money borrowed against his Tesla stocks, using Twitter’s future profits to then pay off this mortgage—a deal that is now, according to Musk, “temporarily on hold”. So stratospheric is this money that while trying to put the billions in context, people kept forgetting to add zeroes, miscalculating their way into Twitter feuds. (For context, Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014 for $22 billion, then considered one of the largest deals in tech history. For reference, a billion has nine zeros.)

Musk has for some time now been the cornerstone of this debate on ambition versus greed. Those who revere him insist on the former, pointing to the years he spent sleeping on Tesla factory floors (the hero of K.G.F., too, is seen working with his miners underground, folding his designer sleeves, curling his lips under the abrasive umbrella of his waxed moustache, hammering into the rocks), labouring towards the billions he now has and is gambling away, jolting the contemporary discourse on a whim, with one snarky tweet broadcasted to his 92.7 million followers causing stocks to plummet.

Those who cannot stand his trollish audacity, his apolitical hand-waving, his cavalier arrogance, his provocative instincts, instead, speak of ambition as greed, as blinding. Around the time Musk was sculpting rockets to transplant civilisation to Mars, an inhospitable planet by any measure, Shannon Stirone, making the distinction between ambition girded by hope and ambition girded by hubris, wrote in The Atlantic: “Musk is no explorer; he is a flag planter.”

While talking to college graduates at a commencement ceremony, Musk insisted that humans becoming a “multi-planet species is… the most important thing for the preservation and extension of consciousness”. To be reminded of this ambition to jettison out of the earth’s atmosphere at a time when, according to Oxfam, we are “witnessing the most profound collapse of humanity into extreme poverty and suffering in memory” is to wonder who Musk has in mind when he thinks of the average human being whose consciousness can be expanded only on the other side of the tattered, hole-ridden ozone door.

Philosophical questions

There are fundamental philosophical questions here. In a world that rewards infinite, eternal growth, of what value are limits? Is the human instinct to grow unfettered produced under capitalism? Why do we consider growth a natural, incontestable thing essential to human civilisation? When does it end?

Friedrich Engels made a curious observation in this regard in Dialectics of Nature, saying that when we keep making slow, small quantitative changes over time, eventually, there comes a limit beyond which the change becomes qualitative. He used the example of water, where we slowly increase/decrease the temperature, and beyond the boiling point the water becomes vapour, and below the freezing point it turns into ice, becoming a fundamentally different entity: something we can walk on or something that can scald our skin. The thought experiment here is to wonder what will happen to humans who have inched, in leaps or leaks, forward so relentlessly that they are on the precipice of being fundamentally altered. At what point, it can be asked, do we freeze over?

In some sense Musk is the best person in whose context to ask this because, at least with respect to financial and social capital, he is the horizon: the richest person in the world, with the most tectonic-shifting, fan-serving Twitter account. There seems to be no stopping him. Musk calls himself a “free speech absolutist”. There is something here about his discomfort with limits, with horizons, with being told what he can and cannot do.

What he thinks is productive for speech, lack of boundaries, is also what he thinks is necessary for civilisation. He believes in the free market, in the invisible hand, abhors government subsidies (despite benefiting from them) as though the natural logic of the world bends towards the ideal world. Is there a way to think of this instinct alongside the court cases he is fighting on a culture of sexual harassment and racial segregation at Tesla? What kind of a work environment does a Sisyphean hustle culture produce? Is freedom the sole end, here?

But freedom is a complicated thing. By itself, it is neither virtue nor vice. There is freedom of speech. There is freedom of hate speech. There is freedom to live. There is freedom to kill. As Amartya Sen writes in Development as Freedom: “The exercise of freedom is mediated by values, but the values in turn are influenced by public discussions and social interactions.” What are the values that mediate Musk’s percussive, persistent reach towards freedom? To look at ambition, to look at markets as places of limitless, unchecked freedom is to stare straight-gazed at the end of a moral imagination. Individual freedom, as Sen notes, is a product of the society in which it is exercised. Individual freedom can also help build that very society from which it derives its freedom. What of that?

An image from the climax of K.G.F.: Chapter 2 has been lingering in my head: of the hero drowning in a tempestuous ocean whose bed is filled with glistening gold biscuits, the product of all his hustle and ambition. That this is his grave is telling. A pointless spectacle, a grand burial. That the movie promises a sequel, a return, a cyclical reiteration of the same story of heroic greed and well-intentioned power grabs is equally telling. For however we choose to think of capitalism, of ambition, of greed, that carousel never stops turning.

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.