Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Fintan O’Toole: Musk’s tantrum capitalism explodes myth of buccaneering libertarianism

Rampant egomania is not creation. It is not even, in the jargon of neoliberalism, creative destruction. It is merely destruction

It used to be cocaine that was, as Robin Williams had it, God’s way of telling you that you have too much money. Now it’s buying Twitter for $44 billion and setting fire to it.

But perhaps there is some continuity here. Both drugs heighten the sense of invincibility you feel while you are making a complete fool of yourself.

Elon Musk has made himself the idiot savant of our times, half genius, all man-child. Yet he has, in the process, illuminated two important truths about contemporary culture.

The first is that there really is such a thing as having too much money. Right-wing economics is based on the belief that the super-rich will ultimately use their vast wealth for the common good. Musk seems to have set out to disprove this thesis by a spectacular demonstration of the wanton wastefulness of excessive riches.


We’re living in an age of grotesque inequality in which a tiny number of people have cornered a vast share of the wealth. We’re no longer even talking about the top 1 per cent, or the top 0.1 per cent. Or even the top 0.01 per cent.

Musk belongs, rather, to the top 0.001 per cent in the United States. That’s 2,400 people who had (in 2016, the latest year for which there are such detailed calculations) $1,631,821,000 between them.

The theory is that these are the “wealth-creators” whose accumulation of such astronomical riches somehow benefits all of humanity. They are the Medicis or the Carnegies of our time.

Agent Musk has set out, presumably on behalf of the worldwide communist conspiracy, to explode such notions. For he has shown – like a global version of our own Seán Quinn – that there is a level of accumulation beyond which “wealth-creators” become wealth-destroyers.

It may well be true that, up to a point, the profit motive drives innovation. But profit gets boring. Too much of it leads to satiety and saturation.

A much more potent and primitive force takes over: megalomania. Beyond the satisfaction of basic needs, beyond security and comfort, there is the search for status, the need to be number one.

And this drive is unbounded. The manic ego knows no limits. Its hunger for domination is insatiable. It eventually takes the shape of an ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a serpent eating its own tail.

It becomes, even by the very narrow measure of money, destructive. Musk has managed, not just to incinerate his own investment in Twitter, but has seen the value of his main enterprise, Tesla fall by half.

The top 10 investors in Tesla have alone lost $133 billion since Twitter’s board accepted Musk’s buyout in April. It must surely be dawning on them by now that, even for lovers of buccaneering capitalism, the madness induced by excessive wealth corrodes the very thing it seeks.

We also have to thank Musk for exposing the myth of libertarian devotion to free speech. His fairytale transformations from self-declared “free speech absolutist” to whiny little snowflake to authoritarian censor is this season’s premature Christmas panto in which the whole Twitter sphere gets to call out: “Oh no he isn’t.”

It has long been obvious that the libertarian commitment to free expression is mostly one-sided: I have absolute freedom to say what I like but if you answer back, you are oppressing me. For the over-privileged (and yes they are still nearly all rich white men) “free speech” really means “Shut up and listen to me.”

Yet no one has managed to make this point so clearly and memorably as Agent Musk. What he got for his $44 billion is a big red card to wave at his enemies and rivals and send them off the pitch.

Presumably he got jealous of Antonio Mateu Lahoz, the referee who issued 15 yellow cards in the Argentina-Netherlands match at the World Cup. Musk needed to prove he could be an even more ridiculous martinet. It does not seem to have occurred to him that if he keeps sending people off there will be no one left to play the game.

Musk banned an account that uses public information to track his private jet and those of Russian oligarchs. Then he banned journalists, some (like Donie O’Sullivan) more or less randomly, some (like Linette Lopez) because they have been reporting critically on his business practices. Then he banned links to the rival social media platform Mastodon.

This is tantrum capitalism. Any notion of making Twitter a profitable business comes a very distant second to the instant self-gratification of banishing the insolent and the impertinent from the perfect realm of Musk’s digital Freedonia.

Rampant egomania is not creation. It is not even, in the jargon of neoliberalism, creative destruction. It is merely destruction.

The (not unreasonable) criticism of Twitter used to be that it is an echo chamber. Yet, in the Greek myth, Echo was ultimately destroyed by Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection. At the end of the story, the echo and the narcissist both withered away and died.

Musk has provided 21st-century feral capitalism with its own moral tale of self-destruction. The narcissism that springs from excess wealth kills the thing it loves most: itself.