Musk and West, Inc.
Elon Musk’s newfound sympathy with Putin’s war aims and his alleged contact with the Russian dictator; Kanye West’s antisemitic outburst; Musk’s warm welcome of West back to Twitter.—All of these things are of a piece. What we’re really witnessing is just the reality of America’s ruling class, its actual vulgarity and kinship to the mob, becoming more apparent, less hidden. As Josh Marshall writes on Talking Points Memo: “Many of our would-be oligarchs in the United States seem quite attracted to the Russian strongman/oligarch model. It’s not just the authoritarianism but the way oligarchs operate within it. It’s part of the broader anti-democratic, authoritarian turn within a large swathe of the tech industry.” Elsewhere, I called this ideology baasskapp, an Afrikaans word meaning essentially “bossism.” (It’s worth noting again that Thiel and Musk both spent formative years growing up in apartheid South Africa, witness to the ruthless domination of that society.)
This is not the first time Musk has tipped his cards. When it appeared that Evo Morales’s government in Bolivia looked like it was being overthrown in a coup, perhaps with lithium mining interests behind it, Musk tweeted, “We will coup whoever we want, deal with it.” This glib and flippant comment revealed his utter crudeness and cynicism. Musk was almost certainly not behind the coup attempt, but he probably wished he was. The only thing surprising about Musk’s expression of sympathy for Putin is that it took so long to become manifest.
Kanye West’s turn to antisemitism also should not have been surprising. Just to be clear, that is what this was, full-on antisemitism: this is not mere provocation, or simple evidence of madness, or an expression of ignorant prejudice—this is precisely an expression of antisemitism an ideology, as a totalizing explanation for the state of the world. American society is largely unable to understand it in its full political significance and processes it instead as “mental health issues” or “offensive remarks” that can be apologized for. It is part of West’s broader turn to reactionary ideology, his embrace of Trump, and the Black-owned white supremacy of Candace Owens. It has a highly personal dimension, to be sure: this all comes as he experiences more and more frustration, with the eclipse of his artistic reputation, with the dissolution of his marriage, and the apparent failure of all his efforts at self-expression save music.
West fancies himself a titanic genius thwarted only by hidden forces. This is the classic pattern of antisemites: Who is responsible for all these shortcomings and frustrations? The Jews, of course. He is not the first artist to indulge in the vulgarity of antisemitism and to turn to its unavoidable hint of murder when all other resources for riveting the public attention seem to have been exhausted. West’s megalomanic ego-ideal is the perfect cultural expression of the values of the class Musk represents in the economic sphere: constant conquest, expansion, and acquisition. As he once rapped, “Let’s have a toast for the douche bags/ Let’s have a toast for the assholes/ Let’s have a toast for the scumbags.” What can better now represent his calling?
Like West, Musk’s reputation as a genius has become tarnished as he revealed his actual vulgarity and idiocy, and in response to his loss of god-like status, he spitefully turns to fantasies of shoring up his power, to reaction. West stands to Musk and his like in a class relation as well: the artist is always just the highest rung of the servant class; he is there to entertain and to provide ideological support. In the same way, the professional antisemite works as both public distraction for and ideologist of the ruling class. Antisemitism is the obscene music of the reactionary bourgeoisie: popular in its appeal, but with power as its true subject.
The re-appearance of antisemitism, the apparent curiosity and tolerance members of both the public and the elite have for it, must be understood as part of the total political situation. Neither the left nor the right has grasped its actual significance yet. The left either responds hysterically with its usually ineffective scolding and handwringing or downplays it as a secondary issue compared to more pressing social concerns. The right says it’s actually an issue of the Left or points to their own Zionism as an alibi.
Antisemitism is both symptom and cause of broader social decline: it is the most pornographic and salacious part of reactionary propaganda, the sign of the abandonment of democracy in favor of demagogues and the mob, and it reveals the utter cynicism and vulgarity of the ruling class, its willingness to indulge in any irresponsibility that will perpetuate its dominance. Will antisemitism become the central ideological force that organizes the entire society, as in Nazi Germany? That seems to be highly unlikely, but it will do its part, with other forces, to further poison the political atmosphere and degrade public discourse; it will be used to alarm, menace, and, one fears, to organize public sentiment.
I’ll conclude with a quote from the historian Michel Winock, “Antisemitism is not only a moral and intellectual monstrosity; as an instrument of reactionary politics, it lies beyond notions of left and right, bringing together every form of racism. It is the negation of the pluralist society, the morbid exaltation of the national ego, and finally, one of the seeds of totalitarian barbarism.”
John Ganz writes the Unpopular Front Substack, where this essay originally appeared. It appears cross-posted here with permission. He is working on a book about the American far right in the early 1990s.