Asbestos Capitalism: “The Founder” and the Future

A stylized portrait of Elon Musk, tinted purple, against an orange backdrop, with the text "Elon Musk & Asbestos Capitalism", after the John Lee Hancock film.

*For Matt Christman. Get well soon, big guy.

Poor Elon Musk. However you might opt to label him – from freedom-defending visionary to steadily-radicalizing clown – he is, in the end, one of us. His upbringing was vastly more privileged than most, but in the final reckoning, he’s just another modern human, milked dry of dopamine by cathecting onto the chaotic, ever-escalating hum of a mass media that broadcasts far beyond (and far short of) any individual horizon. He can whinge about unfair coverage, grumble about a Colbert or a Kimmel taking a cheap shot. But there is no reason to take to the stage with Dave Chappelle at your moment of greatest ignominy if you aren’t seeking validation in the broader media ecosystem, aren’t seeking inclusion in the constellation of cultural referents they are tasked with curating.

Just a few measly centuries ago, artists and entertainers were almost wholly reliant on the patronage networks of the wealthy and the powerful. They come to you, cater to your tastes, model for the masses the staggering depth and breadth of your subjectivity. Now, gallingly for such a one as Mr. Musk, Western media industries have risen to the status of equity partners in the power structure, secured a durable fragment of influence over How Things Are To BeTM. And because their most visible public manifestation consists of beautiful humans being cool in public, they have much more influence on the aesthetics of our emerging dystopia than Elon and his hasty-first-draft approach to designing the future. He cannot torture or exile a one of them, but they can absolutely contribute to dictating what it would be cool for him to wear, or who will have the cultural cache he so badly wants to leech off of. Moreover, they can forbid these things to him, mock him, deny him a sniff of even the evaporating spume of the glitz and glamor they’ve monopolized. His Saturday Night Live episode becomes a 12:30 that never was, yet never stops.

Is it any wonder he’s gravitated to the ersatz conservative counterculture? If you asked him directly, he might say – and believe! – that the Republican influencers and Silicon Valley techno-reactionaries that have glommed onto him are the most rewarding and enjoyable social milieu he’s ever been a part of. I’m sure there is no shortage of Lex Fridman guests who would gladly listen to his dull, infinitesimally-formed takes on things. It’s not everyday that you get a chance to spout your schtick to a man with real, actual sway in the world. Joe Rogan may have the intellectual robustness of a Tesla auto-pilot, but a peon is a peon, however shabby and cigar-stinking. His behavior since he’s bought Twitter/X is utterly bizarre if you take remotely serious his professed desire to recoup the costs of the investment, but it all makes perfect sense if you treat it as a loss leader, a $44 billion bid to be the protagonist of America’s next conservatism. Twitter is a lousy way to make money, but it may be a good way to stretch the Overton Window such that his face peers right through it. He can’t be President, but he can maybe make Presidential hopefuls, like Ron de Santis, have to stand next to him. Remember: he was forced to buy it, forced to build a new life inside of a bad joke, forced to become an Afrikaner Joker stuffing a prank pistol with a flag emblazoned with  “$8”. He’s making the most of it.

It wasn’t always so. In 2010, he wasn’t yet the world’s wealthiest-cum-second-wealthiest man, wasn’t as well-known as he is today, but neither his anemically pale body nor his public image had begun to bloat and sag. That relentless narcissistic itch in his brain had a steady stream of public affirmation to soothe it. I did a cursory skim of Google search results for “Elon Musk” in the 2010-2012 range, and both the coverage of him and the conversations about him were overwhelmingly positive. I was online then; I remember. He made public pronouncements as stupid as those he makes nowadays, pledged to get a man on Mars in ten years and to retire there 10 or 20 years after that, but people had not yet seen enough of him to notice the Music Man soft-shoeing atop his every uttered syllable. For those nervous about climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion, etc., he could be the living, memeing personification of their hopes for ever-increasing material abundance, a metonym for all of the forward-thinking, catastrophe-averting technologies that simply must have been gestating in the world’s research laboratories.

Myths of ruling class virtue are a necessity in any class society. Control over the best tools and systems for implementing violence does most of the actual work of maintaining order, but no person in power wants to have to perpetually prove that they possess such a thing. It’s expensive, it’s destabilizing, it’s delegitimizing, and, worst of all, there’s always a chance, however small, that they could lose. They want the average person to think that the order of things is basically optimal, that it is better that the people dominating them make most of the consequential decisions on their behalf. For most of the last two thousand years, religion could do much of the work of securing that quotidian compliance. Leaders sought or claimed by fiat the blessings of their society’s superstition of choice, and while the actual mechanics of how church and state interacted were highly variable and sharply contested, it cannot be denied that associating revolution with blasphemy was a cross-culturally effective tactic for ruling class self-preservation.

The bourgeoisie, though, emerging as they did from the demystifying mission of the Enlightenment, could not rely on divine anointment to perpetually tamp down on the discontentment of the hoi polloi. They believed that they valued that which was rational, that theirs would be a meritocracy of ongoing achievement in the spheres of life that matter for actual living, not a vague gesturing toward epic poetry. No ruling class had ever had to perpetually prove their right to rule, never been subjected to a mechanism as responsive and punishing of failure as the market promised to be.

This is all propaganda, of course, but propaganda is not always equally false. For myself, the climate crisis has severely complicated by ability to celebrate the areas of progress that a figure like Steven Pinker proclaims we should give more attention to – it’s very easy to make the world better when you’re, essentially, buying on credit – but if I restrict myself to the parts of my brain that haven’t quite accepted that reality, I can definitely see how the historical bourgeoisie look good in comparison to the Medieval nobility and church hierarchs. If you were born in the right place and time, they reconfigured society so that you would have a larger, more accessible, and more varied selection of the stuff that you wanted, and in so doing created a social order with fewer and fewer arbitrary restrictions on your behavior.

That relative preferability is a lot harder to identify, however, if I restrict my analysis to the capitalists that are my contemporaries. Don’t mistake this for romanticism. Capitalists have always been bastards, and that’s without considering the carbon of it all, which has created a non-zero possibility that the next century may leave the world and society much worse than when they found it. But they at least used to have some goddamn pathos, some chutzpah, personal qualities of any kind whatsoever. There was a plausible cross-section of their persons that a skilled rhetorician could surgically excise and hold up as admirable, as aspirational, as justifying their wildly disproportionate sway over our collective affairs. Individuals as clownish as Elon Musk, or as dogmatic and myopic as Charles Koch, or as personally hollow as Mark Zuckerberg, would have been minor footnotes, trampled wannabes in an era of J.P. Morgans, John D. Rockefellers, and Andrew Carnegies. And even those titans were coasting on the real hard work of their predecessors. They didn’t have to break the medieval guilds, or coax scattered networks of petty proprietors into factories, or convince sovereigns to change the fiscal and trade policies of entire polities.

Sports analysts sometimes discuss how the application of evidenced-based approaches to training have led to a steady rise over time in the average athleticism and skill of players, such that many who were regarded as great in the past would be non-notable today. Amongst capitalists, however, the trajectory appears to run in the opposite direction: the more refined the systems for assessing and managing risk, the less that’s actually required of them. There was a time when the bourgeoisie had to at least kind of do the things they claimed they were doing, kind of be the sorts of humans they claimed to be, and without the implicit understanding that the government would bail them out in some fashion if they fucked up, they had an actual fear of falling, had to display some prowess to immanentize their eschaton. (Commies weren’t the only ones doing that, Mr. Buckley.)

Perhaps the most apt illustration of this dynamic – the decay of virtue amongst the capitalist ruling class, or at least of their virtue relative to the particular epochs they occupy – was the 2016 film “The Founder”, directed by John Lee Hancock, about the rise of McDonald’s. The eponymous McDonald brothers (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) approach their business with aplomb, pride, and a flair for the dramatic. Recent emigres out of Hollywood and the studio system of filmmaking, they saw that they could improve on the business model of the typical fast food establishments of the day by narrowing the menu and highly regimenting the assembly process, thus allowing consistently good food to be delivered at a higher volume and lower price.

An intense-featured portrait of Michael Keaton from John Lee Hancock's "The Founder" (2016), which (tries to) show a different sort of capitalism.
Michael Keaton from John Lee Hancock’s “The Founder” (2016)

That reads rather dryly on paper, but in the film, they come across more like a pair of Bob Fosses than Frederick Winslow Taylors, meticulously designing the kitchen so that the workers can move through the space in perfect fluidic synchrony, more a flock of birds than interlocked gears. In a wonderful scene, the brothers draw chalk outlines of various kitchen configurations on a tennis court and do what are effectively dress rehearsals with their employees, beaming with satisfaction while they watch collisions and bottlenecks melt away when they nudge the grills and fryers and condiment stations this way and that. Money seems almost incidental to them, foregoing franchising when it becomes apparent to them that they cannot scale up the intensity of their attention toward quality control. They would like to make more money, but not at the cost of sacrificing what they actually value about the business they’ve built: self-actualization in motion.

Enter Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), the “founder” of the film’s title. He is an exsanguinated Willy Loman type, a wormy traveling salesman hocking multi-spindle milkshake machines that seemingly nobody wants or needs. When the McDonald’s brothers order eight such contraptions, allowing them to mix forty milkshakes at a time, his curiosity overtakes him, and he sets out to find out who or what could have encountered the problem he sells a previously unnecessary solution for at such a scale. Having stopped at many shabby drive-ins in his travels, the speed and quality of McDonald’s stuns him, and he quickly sees that this is an endeavor far worthier of his minor talent for schmoozing. He convinces the brothers to let him handle the problem of franchising, giving them total control over any changes in how the restaurant operates. He quickly finds himself squeezed, however, between franchisees’ natural desire to make adjustments and cut corners (it’s their money!) and the brothers’ prideful intransigence. His share of the profits is also minimal, forcing him to mortgage his house – and ruin his marriage – just to have enough cash to keep his operation going.

The solution comes in the form of one Harry Sonneborn (BJ Novak), an executive of the (now mostly defunct) Tastee-Freez soft-serve ice cream chain. Sonneborn convinces Kroc that his cash-on-hand problems could be solved by buying up the real estate that the restaurants are built on top of, thus creating a steady cash flow of rent payments and giving him leverage over both rogue franchisees and the McDonald brothers. This allows him to steadily increase his control of the company, eventually buying out the brothers. He has won everything, even their name, yet at the end of the movie, psyching himself up for a speech for then-governor of California Ronald Reagan, all he can come up with is microwaved platitudes he’d heard in a motivational speech decades earlier. Perhaps the intervening years have convinced him that the words were his own. Despite having had nothing to do with conceiving, refining, or realizing the system that made the restaurant notable in the first place, he is the founder – but of what?

The point of capitalism, according to its defenders, is to incentivize driven, imaginative people to figure out how to get people things they would like to have in the least expensive way possible. It’s a theoretical perfect alignment between self-interest, self-realization, and the public good, if you’re someone like the film’s imagined McDonald brothers, someone who can derive satisfaction in shepherding a good idea from concept to execution, can come to identify in a visceral way with the very act of planning and management itself. If you’re someone like the filmic Ray Kroc, though – someone without good ideas, or any discernible distinguishing features to speak of – it is, in the abstract, a terrible system for you.

There’s a beautiful loophole, though, and that’s that the whole process is built on an edifice of rules and institutions that have their own logic, that can be gamed. Kroc had nothing to do with what made McDonald’s McDonald’s, and he didn’t even come up with the real estate scheme that made its massive expansion possible. But he could smile and look confident next to a bar graph in a meeting with potential investors, could sign his name on pieces of paper that require cops and courts to protect his claim to plots of land, could breach a contract secure in the knowledge that the other party’s remedy is not real. He was an eminently acceptable veneer for actual practice diverging from ostensible spirit.

“The Founder” is not a great work of art, nor perfectly faithful to the historical record, but it is unique in capturing the psychological dimension of the changing behaviors of the ruling classes that characterize what has been dubbed “late capitalism”. I dislike that term as a descriptor for this phenomenon, though. It’s been bobbing about in the sea of Lefty jargon for nearly a century, and while it originally just meant “the capitalism of late”, no teleology intended it’s become self-soothing, a mantra for maintaining the rotational velocity of spinning plates that have already cracked. Most socialists no longer hold the once-ubiquitous belief that socialism is inevitable, but if capitalism is getting “late”, then at least it isn’t, either.

Yet however much hope we pack into a term of art, it’s not immediately clear to me what the actual point of instability is in what we have now. (The climate is the correct answer, but you can’t factor that into an immanent critique when you’re dealing with something purposefully designed to exclude it.) The basic problem of capitalism, fixated on by a century of crisis theories – that it’s irrational and uncoordinated, thus leading to cyclical breakdowns, one of which could be the big, final one – seems pretty well solved via two fairly trivial changes, neither of which is outside the bounds of capitalism’s SOP. The first is just finding some rent. Adam Smith may have hated rentiers, but Actually Existing Capitalism could never find a way to eliminate rent that didn’t either trample over liberal pieties, or fatally destabilize the ability to realize profit, or both. Real estate holdings, intellectual property, capital gains, government contracts – whatever the individual capitalist’s preferred flavor, it’s a great way of creating a consistent income that buffers you against your and your class’s mistakes on the open market. The second is consolidation. Individual firms below a certain size threshold can be allowed to fail, but just make yourself big enough and an implicit, emergent Keynesianism crystallizes into being, such that the instability in even your rents is hedged against. Rent-squared, as it were.

People have hyperventilated and dubbed this a part of an emerging neofeudalism, but rent is not the thing that is driving people to produce. The engine of the whole thing is still extraction, refinement, commodity production, sales, and the services that knit all of those things together. It’s more like having a spotter at the gym: your muscles are still doing the work on most reps, but you have a contingency for when they give. This is also not the concept of “crony capitalism” that free-market fundamentalists claim is fucking up the syncretic, cybernetic wisdom of the price signal or whatever. The Keynesian element perhaps fits that label, but it’s hard to see what the practical objection to it could be from such types if the alternative is an aperture for train-loving socialists to chug right on through.

What we are dealing with, then, is a capitalism that takes features and possibilities initially intended for simple functionality and uses them to insulate itself from its own destabilizing features. In the long tradition of enterprising Lefties everywhere, and the poetic and literary spirit of this outlet, I’ll dub this permutation asbestos capitalism. Its beginnings will always resemble a fast food restaurant discovering that a real estate scheme helps get more people hamburgers. It blossoms when Bain Capital, “respectable Republican” Mitt Romney’s old haunt, can make more money from simply having various free-floating bits of austerely administered intellectual property in their portfolio than by dedicatedly running each business on their own terms. It shows its whole hand when finance whizzes match the wrong buyers to the wrong homes with the wrong repayment schedules on a scale so vast and arcanely-aggregated that the government has no choice but to make them whole. And it reaches its apotheosis when a man realizes that there is more money in the idea of electric cars – via stock market bubbles, cashing in on other companies’ environmental regulatory obligations, and government subsidies – than there is in electric cars themselves. Salvation is just another revenue stream.

Whether this is an inevitable byproduct of capitalism, itself, is difficult to say, but given it results from simply using in novel ways rules and structures that exist to make “pure” capitalism (whatever that is) even possible, it is difficult for me to see how it’s not. Regulations against it are theoretically possible, but in our world (and any world where socialism emerges as an alternative), it’s a tendency that grew alongside an immense edifice of anti-regulatory energies, meaning that’s a bitter fight for a probably insufficient result. Perhaps strict anarcho-capitalism, the total removal of the government from the equation, would mitigate against it, but given those theorists have a history of converging on racial ethnostates as a way to lower the transaction cost of trust enough to prevent oligarchic warlords from emerging, it’s difficult to imagine how that would be preferable for anybody that doesn’t like racial ethnostates.

I’m reminded of the concept of the solved game, wherein the strategy for winning is deducible at every step of the process once enough iterations have been worked through. Capitalists can compete all they want on production costs and distributional efficiency but the latent possibility of asbestos capitalism developing suggests that, from the beginning, the capitalists that got the rents were going to be the ones that won out, whatever else they thought they were doing. Earlier, I analogized the capitalist class to athletes, but in truth, it’s only the first generation – the ones that courted the ire of monarchs and armor-clad aristocrats – that showed any physical courage. Once governments started taking Adam Smith’s advice to use the capitalist model for organizing production to amass wealth, every subsequent capitalist was, essentially, manipulating the possibilities and limitations of an already arranged virtual world, albeit one composed of expropriated raw materials and implicitly violent enforcement of private property rights, rather than of code. They were, in a barely metaphorical sense, gamers.

A digitally fractured, seemingly asbestos-sickened capitalist named Elon Musk.What kind of gamer, then, is Elon Musk? If John D. Rockefeller was an e-sports legend, wielding downright quantum reflexes and a desire to test them against others in multiplayer, zero-sum contexts, then perhaps Musk is best understood as a kind of speedrunner. For those unfamiliar, speedrunning is a trend in the video game streaming community where people compete to see who can complete games the fastest. There are those who do this in a “pure” manner, beating games in their entirety and relying on exceptionally skilled play to lop seconds off of their time to completion, but far better-known at this point are those speedrunners that complete long games absurdly quickly. How do they do this? They take advantage of glitches. They find, by communal trial and error (and sometimes digging into the code, itself), how they can get to later areas of the game earlier – which “solid” walls have improperly programmed spots that they can phase through, where they can teleport past intended obstacles. They forego skilled execution of the intended experience and instead seek accomplishment by exploiting unintended features that emerge from a complex system.

Yet even this characterization of Elon as a glitch-exploiting speedrunner, damning though it already is, is still too kind to the man. The thing about the type of speedrunning I described is that there is actually a strong community ethos, as well as a great deal of practice-derived skill required of would-be record-seekers. The fastest route through a game is hammered out slowly and socially, with people learning the best secrets for reducing completion time as soon as someone goes public with their discoveries for some temporary plaudits. People take that discovery on board and search for more, in a continuous feedback loop until all of the relevant exploitable bugs have been uncovered. At that point, the records come down to a new contest of skill, to who can move in the straightest lines, turn at the most optimal angles, defeat enemies in the fewest moves. As ridiculously frivolous as this hobby may seem on its surface, as much as its existence may bring out the reactionary decadence-despisers inside many of us, there is still both social and personal discipline required to make it all happen.

Elon simply cannot claim that anything he’s ever excelled in has pitted him against such a sizable number of competitors, requiring diligently-acquired mastery to get the better of, as this. There weren’t hundreds or thousands of multimillion-dollar payment processing websites, or rocket development companies, or electric vehicle manufacturers that he had to contend with, learn from, overcome. He’s just lucky enough to be the guy who did the things that he’s done, and that’s about it. He is, as internet personality Matt Christman recently dubbed him, a lumpen billionaire, someone of the billionaire class but not molded by, nor subject in an ongoing way to, the disciplining mechanisms that characterize and constrain the class as a whole.

Yet if, in his decades-long surfing of waves of speculation and hype, we see not only his story, but a living embodiment of a behavioral paradigm that capitalism is, over time, more inclined to reward than actually ratcheting up efficiency in the production process, then perhaps we are looking not at an aberration of the ruling class, a parodic tagalong, but at its future. It may not always behave in such obviously foolish and self-sabotaging ways, may not always seem as divorced from anything tangible. There may even eventually be a rupture that forces a return to a contest of skill, as happens in the speedrunning community.

But I think that the older you get after reading this, the likelier it will be that the industrialist, hedge fund manager, or founder of a “game-changing” startup getting broadcast to you will not be what their position of prominence, the very fact of being repeatedly exposed to their mien, suggests they should be. They won’t be the shamans of inchoate public want, won’t be shrewd analysts perfectly funneling money where it needs to be. They will be, whatever they tell you (or themselves), the thousand faces of Elon Musk, the landlord’s dull-witted yawp running through every brand of distortion pedal.

I can’t leave it at that, however. Elon has lost more money than any person in history, and he has every potential of losing much more. We cannot hope for this kind of fragility to generalize across the ruling class. Whatever your vision of what is next for the human project, from market socialism to Star Trek, it will not come so easily. This new bourgeoisie’s relative lack does not seem to have made them any likelier to be supplanted than their savvier forebears, to whom I have been far too kind, for rhetorical purposes. The very fact that asbestos capitalism is possible at all gives lie to the notion that particular personal qualities actually ever mattered much at all. There is one exception, though, a tool that has been passed down through the ages and in whose glint we can see the one indispensable quality that unites the capitalist class as a whole: indifference.

Indifference to time-honored claims by communities on particular natural resource hubs. Indifference to guilds’ rationally self-interested limitation on the amount of time they would spend working. Indifference to people seeking to continue working the land and making their stuff in the way they have traditionally done those things. Indifference to what kinds of conditions they can make their workers work in. Indifference to the ways their demands of their workers might interfere with the actual flourishing of their lives. Indifference to the deaths and miseries that result both from their particular machinations and from how society arranges itself to accommodate them. Indifference to whole cultures, if they happen to be located somewhere the capitalists have need of or possess an ethos that frustrates their aims. Indifference to the very beauty and metabolic health of the planet, itself.

Lest I be accused of hyperbole: this certainly does not describe every capitalist, and it may not even describe any individual capitalist. But in the process of coordinating and balancing their particular needs and situations, the patchwork of their particular concerns and preferences and interests and tolerances, what emerges is functionally all absence, no presence. On a long enough timeline, the pet project of one becomes another’s bete noire, and in such conflicts, history suggests the tie goes to the runner the vast majority of the time. For as much as fear of Stalin is the ultimate trump card of the capitalists, the truth is that their actual value add to the system, the thing that gives them claim to their spoils, is not their savvy, not their hard work, not their perseverance. It’s just being Stalin, fractionally divided into smaller domains of authority.

Plant declining in profitability? Move it overseas. Production producing a bunch of waste? Find the cheapest minimally legal means to dispose of it, consequences be damned. Labor costs running too high? Reduce staff to the lowest number possible, and make the ones that remain do more tasks. High-up employee got caught committing sex crimes? Never knew him. Climate conditions making people question your whole apparatus? Fund international misinformation campaigns that minimize the severity of the problem and convince hundreds of millions of people that any mitigation efforts are actually attacks on their liberty and way of life.

These are things I do not think I could do. Yet there are more than enough people for whom this kind of behavior, these kinds of personal moral allowances and the rationalizations that undergird them, come naturally. Perhaps it’s mere self-flattery to exempt myself, but given the findings around temperamental differences between people that are congealing out of the literature, I genuinely don’t think so. More likely, I would always remain one of the brothers McDonald, waiting stubbornly for my turn to lose. Try as you might, you are always at a handicap when your opponent is a Stalin – however diluted or deluded – playing a game nobody else gets to play, on a hardware no one else can afford. His boundaries begin where the program ends.

[Image credits: Marcin Pasnicki and Indrajitsingh for Pixabay.]

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