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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Why Musk appears to be in search of an oppressor

India’s billionaires are widely quoted, but we do not know their voice. On most matters, we don’t know what they think. When they speak, they are mostly uninteresting. They are not even boring in distinct ways. Meanwhile, some American billionaires have become more popular and influential than most politicians, writers, artists and holy men. And they have done this without paying millions to promote themselves. This is because they can say things and not be ruined in return. Elon Musk, one of the richest men ever to have lived, has used this freedom on Twitter to offer a new form of entertainment. What he does answers this question: What happens when a person has no oppressors? Yet, Musk is interesting not because a person who cannot be oppressed can say anything. That is too rudimentary; in fact, that is something even self-absorbed people with no children can apparently do. What makes Musk so fascinating may have a much more complex answer: When you have no oppressors, you would set out to find them.

Almost everyone in this world feels oppressed. They don’t like it, but it does not mean they don’t need it. Without a sense of being oppressed, people are lost. This torment satisfies the soul. Too much of it will break us, but its disappearance could send us afloat in a frictionless void.

Most of us do not seek oppression because we do not have to. It is always bearing down on us. It comes from familiar places.

When scholars speak of oppression, they make it seem as though it is something grand, like politics or history or culture, and that everyone is oppressed by the same massive force. It’s not true. They’re talking about what oppresses them, not you. We are oppressed by the familiar just a notch above us. People are seldom harmed by things that are much grander than them. You are more likely to be oppressed by a mere boss or family or a street thug than, say, an ideology. And your househelp is probably more oppressed by her husband or your security guard or you than by billionaires. Despots see their oppressor in the US. American leaders see their oppressor in half the population of America, what they call “polarisation". In this way, many things that Elon Musk does could be part of a quest for an oppressor, a despicable force whose existence can make life more meaningful.

A few days ago, he offered to buy Twitter and take it private. He framed it as a moral action—to liberate Twitter from its “woke" employees who try to control the transmission of extreme ideas. Setting forth a moral justification is a Western habit and technique. It is not a gimmick; it is more culture. But usually, the moral cause presumes that the saviour is bigger than the evil that has to be slain. In his war against killers of absolute free speech, those hyper-moral people who think some ideas do not deserve to be transmitted, Musk conveys that he is up against something much more powerful than he is, even though he can buy up a corporation where those censors work.

Wokes can often be so far removed from goodness that they make bad guesses about what it might be. As a result, they are always fighting on behalf of others, and they can become more zealous than the people they claim to protect. Musk says they have diminished Twitter. And also made Netflix boring, as he tweeted after it revealed it had lost subscribers. It’s amusing because the success of Tesla, the electric car company that Musk bought and turned into a modern giant, owes much to the first generation of wokes who had a hip paranoia about climate change. Telsa, like Apple, is in part a woke creation. Maybe there are good wokes.

In any case, I do not think wokes have much destructive power. And, even if they number in millions, I wonder how well they can fulfil Musk’s potential requirement of oppressive friction. There are far bigger (and genuine) oppressors, such as climate change, that Musk himself has publicly identified.

Like other billionaires in the West, who cannot be oppressed by things that oppress others, Musk has been locating it in greater things, like climate. So oppressed is he by the future of our planet that he has advocated migration to Mars. Visions of such tormentors may have driven his ambitions for years, making him pursue various technologies, send off rockets and dig tunnels on earth to transform how we travel.

It must be hard for Musk to find oppressors in humans, but he finds them in machines. He is among the wealthy people, like Bill Gates, who have warned of extreme artificial intelligence and advanced dumb machines that could misunderstand instructions, go rogue and end up colonizing the world.

It may appear that Musk is not as oppressed by the idea of death as other American billionaires who have invested in finding a cure for ageing. But it must be oppressive for him too, even if it’s not an inevitability anymore but just another rival. Musk reportedly expects to liberate himself from death by downloading his brain onto a computer.

As a very wealthy man, Elon Musk must inescapably be something of an oppressor himself. These days, the banal unhappiness of adulthood has a special name, ‘stress’, and perpetrators of it are called ‘capitalists’. Like Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Musk too has been accused to driving his employees hard.

A few days ago, amused by how few people show up for work at Twitter’s head office, Musk suggested that it be turned into a shelter for the homeless. This was a response to a method that ordinary people have adopted to fight their oppressors—by being bad slaves and spending more time on what they love. That, Musk does too.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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