A cursory Google search for “can Silicon Valley save the world” pulls up about 29,000,000 results. Many of those top hits are think pieces and news coverage of a debate inaugurated by a 2013 piece in Foreign Policy magazine by the same title. But discourse around the capacity of technology to save or doom humanity long predates the rise of Silicon Valley as the both mythical and geographic centre of the “tech industry.” For John Locke, liberty is realised through mastery over nature through “industrious and rational” human labour. For Karl Marx, technological automation is an outgrowth of capital accumulation that initially deepens class division and eventually makes life beyond necessity under communism both possible and livable. In the history of Western thought, technology, labour, and freedom have been intimately interwoven to a variety of ends and effects. But wherefore art the discussion of work and labour in Silicon Valley? And what, precisely, is Silicon Valley saving us from?

As its magnates and public figures would have it, everything. Silicon Valley promises a magical and technical-scientific fix to humanity’s problems – a fix that marries a utopian technological progress with enchanted imaginations of Mars settlements, cyborgs, and endless innovation. From Elon Musk saving humanity by colonising Mars, to Peter Thiel offering neat, private-sector solutions to government problems created by what he deems “extreme dogmatism,” these utopian visions operate on a time horizon quite apart from the typical focus on the next election cycle. And yet, folks like Musk and Thiel (and others) deploy their utopian visions as part of their charismatic self-representations, sustaining their images as exceptional leaders who can generate enchanting projects, innovation, and results (and who, by the way, are actually quite interested in the next election cycle).

A masculinised Silicon Valley work ethic of self-sacrifice – one self-styled as tech bro “nerd masculinity” and the emphasis on work as passion – justifies itself through the evocation of a greater civilizational mission that will save the destructive human race from its own degeneracy. Such gestures towards an inter-planetary civilising mission at best parallel, and at worst peddle, the language of modernization theory – where scientific inquiry and discovery are deemed the inevitable terrain of the West and European Enlightenment humanism. A most recent evocation of this idea by Musk tells us that “making life multiplanetary” not only “expands the scope & scale of consciousness” but “it also enables us to backup the biosphere, protecting all life as we know it from a calamity on earth. Humanity is life’s steward, as no other species can transport life to Mars. We can’t let them down.” But who is the “we” responsible for delivering “them” from catastrophe?

As the mouthpieces of Silicon Valley, tech founders inculcate an imperative to “do what you love” among tech workers who do not share the same kind of precarity with service and switchboard workers whose earnings are the lowest of the tech sector, yet who are simultaneously required to embody the Silicon Valley work ethic without the promised rewards of the “founders.” At the same time, the ideology of the Silicon Valley work ethic thus upholds a neoliberal emphasis on flexible, precarious labour that disproportionately impacts low-wage workers and also erases both the gendered, racialised, and sexualised histories of labour expropriation upon which they depend as well as the more radical pasts of San Francisco and the Bay Area. The concrete work necessary for Silicon Valley’s dreams depoliticise and obscure the hierarchies and power relations at work.

Elon Musk’s work ideology

For Silicon Valley icon Elon Musk, the emphasis on doing what you love in order to expand the scope and scale of consciousness serves to justify the stress of dominating round-the-clock (over)work – not to mention providing ideological cover for racist and sexist labour practices, for dangerous working conditions, for union-busting, for alleged sexual misconduct, for securities fraud, or for flouting COVID protocols. Musk is a self-styled cool tech entrepreneur, thought leader, mystical innovator, and potential saviour of humanity (or, failing that, naive saviour of Twitter qua free speech free-for-all). Indeed, he justifies his massive wealth on this very basis, defending himself from criticism of his wealth by tweeting in 2021 that he is “accumulating resources to help make life multiplanetary & extend the light of consciousness to the stars.” The abstract language of world-historical development thus cloaks the day-to-day, embodied realities of Silicon Valley’s demands on workers.

Although Musk is full of banalities about working hard and doing what you love, who in practice has access to enacting his ideal of the work ethic? To what extent, if at all, do the service workers, cleaning staff, and third-party contractors at Tesla’s Gigafactories have access to a celebration of work? Can anyone other than Musk himself valorise civilizational work? Seemingly the only way Musk can genuinely esteem the kind of labour he never does is if it is in service of paying back one’s loan to travel to Mars and fulfilling his extra-planetary civilising mission.

Not only does Musk’s work ethic leave behind workers themselves; it also depoliticises the work they do and prevents collective action. Musk displays this sort of attitude in a February 2017 email to Tesla employees obtained by BuzzFeed News. The email harshly criticises unionisation efforts at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California for being “disingenuous,” and defends Tesla against claims that workers are overworked, underpaid, and face unsafe working conditions. He accuses the United Auto Workers of being beholden to the traditional American car companies and characterises Tesla as being in a “David vs [sic] Goliath” fight where the “forces arrayed against us are many and incredibly powerful.” More brazenly, he sells Tesla as fun: he promises “to hold a really amazing party” when the next production target is met; vows that “it’s going to get crazy good” when the “Tesla electric pod car roller coaster (with an optional hyperloop route, of course!) that will allow fast and fun travel throughout our Fremont campus” is finished; and allays concerns about working conditions with the assurance of “free frozen yogurt stands scattered around the factory.”

Musk’s “let them eat cake” moment encapsulates his work ideology. Rather than worry about or seek to redress labour conditions, rather than consider solidarity or collective bargaining, Musk presents a vision in which one works hard in service of an ambitious, majestic, and enchanting mission in which the hyperloop or the fro yo rewards a certain kind of work. Mundane work and the conditions under which it is done are invisibilised or ignored, while (over)work that innovates or saves the species is romanticised and valorised. While Musk has suggested that the form of government in a hypothetical society on Mars would be “somewhat of a direct democracy where people vote directly on issues instead of going through representative government…everyone votes on every issue,” he demonstrates no inclination to give workers on Earth any democratic control on the factory floor.

Peter Thiel and the cyborg start-up

If Musk is the Valley’s resident advocate for taking risks for your dreams, Thiel (the “contrarian”) is all about hedging your bets. As far as the work involved, however, the picture is similarly impoverished. For Thiel, the likening – in his 2014 book Zero to One, written with Blake Masters, a former student and employee of Thiel who is currently running as an explicitly MAGA Republican candidate for the US Senate from Arizona  – of the start-up to a cyborg organism that infinitely reproduces its own conditions of survival renders workers invisible and reinforces the faceless, disembodied nature of both tech company employees and the working-class labour undergirding both the industry’s broader infrastructure and the narratives of its elite seeking to embellish tech’s social meaning.

In one of the scant mentions of actual workers in his book, Thiel revealingly compares the successful startup to a cult. Just as in cults, where members ignore their families and abandon the outside world, a company should have a somewhat similar ability to “ensorcel” its members. The company should take precedence over other material concerns (including family) and membership in the collective is quite literally inscribed on the body. As Thiel tells it, “the startup uniform [branded t-shirt or hoodie] encapsulates a simple but essential principle…a tribe of like-minded people fiercely devoted to the company’s mission.” Thiel’s own company Palantir (which derives its name from J.R.R. Tolkien’s term “palantíri”) is renowned for its own cult-like company culture, and hosts a hyped “gear” section of its website where you, too, can own a company branded water bottle.

Nowhere in Thiel’s startup manifesto does he detail the day-to-day work required to maintain the company, and specific workers only appear as nodes of stability and silent labour power in the company’s cyborg ecosystem. But there is a qualitative difference between man and machine for Thiel – the capacity for intentionality and creative thinking. While computers can complete tasks in response to problems humans have already identified and begun to solve, they cannot do the work of intentionally directing creative energy towards new and more difficult problems. Thiel’s biographer notes that he repurposes Ayn Rand’s “builder” terminology for entrepreneurs, works closely with the military-industrial complex, and both predicts and seeks to escape doom-filled futures. Again, the spectre of humanity-saving innovation.

One major problem with such a vision resonates with Musk’s depoliticization of work: Thiel’s technological reverie operates in opposition to political contestation or political vision. Thiel has repeatedly decried a variety of facets of the American political system, and many critics and admirers alike believe he is more interested in the race itself than in the outcome. In the startup, there is no political community polis, only an autonomous, disembodied subject with zero understanding of its own reliance on the maintenance of deeply gendered and racialised relations of social reproduction. At the same time, it imagines itself capable of somehow magically surviving forever and constantly regenerating. Thiel’s cyborg feigns a willingness to overturn all conventions and origins, while in effect leaving all of their machinations and hierarchies perfectly intact. Meanwhile, the monsters that threaten the company cyborg, the disenchanted workers, are the very same ones that destabilise production under capitalism.

Even as Musk and Thiel depoliticise actual labour, their extreme certainty in their own genius and vision seems to authorise their entree into more directly political realms. As Thiel gave a record-breaking and decisive $15 million to a Super-PAC supporting Ohio Senate Republican nominee JD Vance’s campaign  – advancing the power of the so-called “New Right“– Elon Musk was in the midst of potentially acquiring Twitter while promising a shake-up, nonsensical memes about polarisation and all, only to later attempt to back out of the purchase agreement and then face a lawsuit from Twitter in response. Of course, he has now successfully acquired Twitter – in the name of a self-proclaimed love for humanity, no less – and immediately disrupted it in true tech bro fashion.  The question of who is saving whom from what has become even murkier.

On our reading, the real uniqueness of Silicon Valley lies in how its techno-dreams of rescuing civilization are deployed to mystify the operation of a dominating work-ethic. This is not simply capitalism’s self-justification as usual. Silicon Valley actualises the capacity of capitalism to absorb the dream of freedom promised by an earlier era and renders it into work-as-lifestyle sold to both consumer and worker.


Authors’ Note: This post builds on and updates an earlier analysis published as Emily K. Crandall, Rachel H. Brown, and John McMahon. “Magicians of the Twenty-first Century: Enchantment, Domination, and the Politics of Work in Silicon Valley.” Theory & Event 24, no. 3 (2021): 841-873. doi:10.1353/tae.2021.0045.

Emily K. Crandall is an adjunct assistant professor in Political Science and Women and Gender Studies at the City University of New York. Rachel H. Brown is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. John McMahon is Assistant Professor of Political Science at SUNY Plattsburgh. You can find all three talking all things critical theory at the Always Already Podcast

This is the fourth contribution of PERC’s series on the Silicon Valley ideologyEach week for the next two months, experts from the fields of political economy, political theory, economic history, cultural studies and law will share their research perspectives on the recent trends that have animated the Silicon Valley bubble. If you wish to get involved or would like to pitch an idea for a contribution, get in touch with our editor Carla Ibled (c.ibled[at]gold.ac.uk).