A scene in Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I opens on a comedian in the court of Emperor Julius Caesar. His performance starts off strong, but after a series of jokes that offend the Emperor, the comedian is ordered to be executed. A panicked servant spills wine on the Emperor’s lavish robes and meets the same fate. Then Caesar stumbles on a brilliant idea: he’ll have the comedian and the servant fight to the death as entertainment during dessert. As the condemned men duel, an amused Caesar tosses a banana peel into the fray, just to shake things up a bit.
Last week, a minor news story broke about Elon Musk. According to a former Tesla executive, Musk occasionally sends emails to his subordinates consisting of only three letters: “WTF.” Whenever his circle of senior managers receives one of these vague indictments, they are gripped by terror and the operation descends into chaos.
“It would cause huge scrambles, and you would spend days chasing down some issue that wasn’t a real problem,” the former executive told Business Insider. The blasé ruler, the groveling subjects, the diffuse apprehension punctuated by moments of utter pandemonium — it’s pure Brooksian slapstick.
But this is real life, and beneath the comedy is a grim reality. We no longer live in societies ruled by kings or emperors. Our heads of state can’t force us to fight to the death for their entertainment. But enormous power is still absurdly concentrated in individuals, for different reasons and by different mechanisms.
If someone owns as many factories and productive assets as Musk does, they can control people like marionettes. Even less wealthy bosses can make people do things they don’t want to do. In a society where people have to sell their labor to have access to things like food and shelter, people will comply with requests that range from the absurd to the dangerous in order to keep their jobs and protect their livelihoods.
The transition to capitalism, for some societies, meant liberation from certain forms of bondage. In feudal Europe, serfs and peasants were dominated by often tyrannical lords and monarchs. Capitalism broke those feudal chains, but it didn’t end bondage altogether. A new era began in which the majority of people were free to sell their labor to whichever capitalist they chose, provided the capitalist wanted to buy it, but not free to live without selling their labor to a capitalist at all.
In capitalist societies, a handful of individuals get rich by paying workers as little as they can get away with and pocketing the rest — that is, profit. Those elite few have enormous power over the individuals in their employ, and over the politicians who create the laws and set the rules for the whole of society.
Take Elon Musk. He has great power over the workers at his Tesla plants, who endure “pain, injury and stress” on a regular basis and are constantly thwarted by Musk in their attempts to unionize. He also has significant power over the managers at his company, who like many members of the professional-managerial class are motivated by the fear that they will lose their privileged status — and maybe even have to endure the hardships of workers — if they don’t unquestioningly cater to the wishes of the boss.
And like many wealthy people, Musk exerts power over the broader political context in which we all live, too. He’s known to donate huge sums of money to both major American political parties. These donations aren’t an expression of personal political belief. They are a ritual demonstration of his willingness to offer material support — as long as the parties keep the donor’s interests in mind in return. The message is along the lines of, There’s more where that came from, as long as taxes and regulations remain favorable to big corporations like mine.
Of course, those taxes might otherwise go to public programs that ease the burden on the people who work at Musk’s factories. But instead they go straight into his pocket, and workers are squeezed even harder, become even more vulnerable, and are ever-more willing to follow the boss’s orders.
The problem with capitalism is that, while it may have ended the horrible era of hereditary sovereigns and absolute rulers, it hasn’t ended the era of extreme individual domination — only changed its character.
Unlike capitalists, socialists are interested in building a society where it’s not possible for one person or a handful of elites to exert outsize power over everyone else. Democracy and egalitarianism are the foundation of our vision, and all of the political specifics flow from those commitments.
We want a society where nobody subjects themselves to excruciating physical pain at work because they’re afraid that otherwise they won’t be able to afford a place to live. We want a society where people don’t tolerate harassment — sexual, verbal, or otherwise — from managers for fear that their career prospects will evaporate. We want a society where every citizen has an equal say in the government, not an oligarchy where the rich set the rules for the rest.
When we consider how pervasive these forms of domination are under capitalism, we have to ask ourselves: how far are we really from the era of kings and emperors, and how much further do we have to go?