Most of you probably heard about Bill Gates’ recent over the top 66th birthday celebration. The images conjured up visions of a Bond film. It got me thinking about Bezos and Musk and how they could easily be cast as villains in a Bond film. Maybe real-life really is stranger than fiction. Or maybe they’re one in the same.
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BOND MEETS ELON
The scene opens in Monaco with the bay crowded with boats. James Bond has just climbed aboard a private mega yacht and is snooping around. With a single hand he pulls open a glass sliding door on the upper deck and steps inside an opulent room filled with fine furniture.
He glances out a window to reveal a long gray military frigate docked at shore with a helicopter perched on top. Speeding toward it is a motor boat that mysteriously vanishes under water 10 meters shy of the hard chined towering frigate.
Bond squints with suspicion. He then notices a reflection in the shiny brass compass housing just in front of the window. Somebody is approaching him from behind. He quickly grabs a towel and somehow manages to kill his assailant with piece of white cotton terry cloth fabric that he then uses to dab the sweat from his brow.
The scene cuts to a celebration on the French frigate. The military’s top brass and dignitaries arrive in chauffeured Mercedes Benz sedans as a Navy brass band plays in the background. We cut briefly to see a closeup of two identification cards being swapped by black leather gloved hands. Back to Bond on the boat and he’s just stumbled across a dead man that stiffly falls from a closet stripped of all his clothes – presumably the previous holder of one of those ID cards we just saw.
We cut back to shore and are introduced to an attractive woman who just arrived for the ceremonies. And now back to Bond who puts two and two together and jumps from the super yacht onto a high speed tender. The camera zooms in on the throttle as we’re treated to the throaty roars of a muscular V12 engine. Bond shoves the throttle forward and jets towards the celebration.
We cut to a speech by a French bureaucrat standing on the frigate. He’s spouting off the technological features of a new helicopter that is about to be demonstrated. He calls it “Europe’s answer to the electronic battlefield.” The Tiger helicopter, he says, uses “stealth technology.” It’s “hardened against all forms of electronic interference, radio jamming, and electromagnetic radiation.”
We then cut to two pilots making their way toward the helicopters below deck on the frigate. But, they’re interrupted by the beautiful woman we were just introduced to. After some flirty back and forth dialog, she raises her gun and kills them both.
Next we see her wearing one of their helmets and uniform as she’s joined by her companion Bond saw dip below the surface in the motorboat moments earlier. They make their way out onto the helicopter pad where the Tiger awaits. The announcer says, “Please welcome the pilots!” They climb in and start the propellers whirling as we cut to Bond making his way up the steps of the dock and through the crowd.
He runs toward the frigate to stop them, but is halted and thrown up against the wall of the ship by two French navy officers. A gun is held to his sun soaked face as he watches the Tiger helicopter whir away.
I couldn’t help but recall this scene from the 1995 Bond film, GoldenEye when I read reports and saw pictures of Bill Gates’ rented yacht docked in a remote bay somewhere in Turkey shuttling guests by helicopter to his beachside 66th birthday bash.
There’s no question Bill lives the life similar to those mega rich and powerful international men of mystery that Bond films cast as antagonists. He lives in a sprawling high tech compound on Lake Washington with a Bond-like subterranean garage. When he’s not around to commute by car to his nearby office, he has a barge tugged into a secluded cove where his helicopter can land. A small boat shuttles him to shore. He escapes up a mysterious private elevator in a midrise office building overlooking the lake and the Seattle skyline.
For his Turkish birthday bash, Bill paid upwards of $2 million dollars a week to rent one of the world’s largest yachts, “Lana”. One of his guests, Jeff Bezos, also rented a yacht. Some speculate he actually owns it, but the “Flying Fox” rents for over $3 million a week. It too had helicopters shuttling people to the beach party.
The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, wasn’t there but we can imagine he would not have been out done. Perhaps there was a shortage of yachts to rent. Or maybe he was in the Space X control room rattling off all the technological wonders of his new rocket perched on the platform outside.
I can imagine the scene cutting to 007 careening down the tarmac in his Tesla Cybertruck. Flying just above him, a bodacious, musclebound, blond bombshell leaning out of an unmanned drone. She’s firing rounds of thermonuclear plasma from her space pistol as the countdown clock to launch ticks toward zero. Will 007 make it to Musk in time, or will the double agent vixen sabotage the launch?
THE INDIVIDUALISTIC TRIUMPHANT SEXIST
These three men have more in common than being billionaires, they’re all science fiction junkies who pursued a path of technocratic, world dominating, capitalistic monopolies. They’re also rational egoists. They believe their selfish actions to be perfectly rational. In fact, in their estimation, any action on the part of any human is only rational if and only if it maximizes one's own self-interest.
The libertarian darling philosopher and writer Alice O’Connor, or better known as Ayn Rand, a favorite of theirs I’m sure, said “it’s not only irrational to act against your own self-interest, but it’s also immoral.”
She was a big fan of 007 books, but not the films. She didn’t like how the humor diminished the glory of individualism. She said the movies “undercut Bond’s stature, to make him ridiculous.” At least she wasn’t alone.
The inventor of the character, Ian Fleming, thought he was ridiculous too. He believed Bond as a “blunt instrument wielded by a government department who would get into bizarre and fantastic situations […] he’s always referred to as my hero. I don’t see him as a hero myself. On the whole I think he’s a rather unattractive man.”
Billionaires today are villainized as rather unattractive men. Like Bond movies, they celebrate and flaunt the excesses of mass-consumption and capitalism. We can track the rise of this behavior with the rise of the Bond franchise. From the early books in the 1950s to the most recent Bond flicks, we are offered superheroes of a technologically driven mass-consumer society.
But it’s not a society of the masses. It’s a glamorized vision of a small exclusive society that props itself up so it can look down at the rest of the world’s global population. Without whom, through their toils and disenfranchisement, the elite exclusive little society would not exist. Nor would villainous billionaires. Or maybe not as many.
Bond films divide the world into workers, buyers, and capitalists. All three of those characters are presented in that single helicopter scene in GoldenEye. Two navy pilots (workers) killed point blank by a hired villain (worker) so she could fly a technologically advanced machine built with blue-collar labor (workers) and purchased by the government (buyer) from a corporation (capitalist) using tax dollars collected largely from workers.
And it was Bond’s job to represent the public’s interest, squash the entire operation, and save capitalism.
And the audience cheers him on. The audience, of course, is made mostly of people who have a vested interest in a government secret agent protecting the laws that maintain their private ownership of property, consumption of goods, and privilege over those tasked with serving them. They give permission to Bond to do things that go against the grain of Western democracy and its Christian roots.
He’s allowed to break the law, promote misogyny, destroy property, and even commit murder. So long as the dominant social order is upheld, mass-media consumers turn a blind eye.
Social scientist, Toby Miller calls it a “popular endorsement of overt governmental processes through the publicly-ratified rule of law.” It’s exactly what many in Europe and America want.
The former New York Times movie critic, Vincent Canby, wrote in 1971 that Bond is a “steadfast agent for the military-industrial complex, a friend to the C.I.A. and a triumphant sexist.” In 2012 the American Conservative magazine said “Bond’s Britain is relevant, wealthy, and influential, still a beacon of Western ingenuity.”
Gates, Bezos, and Musk are all beacons of Western ingenuity. But they’re also cartoons of capitalism, just as Bond is a cartoon of Western hegemony. Film critic and painter, Manny Farber wrote that Bond films are “a catalogue of posh-vulgar items for licentious living.” The former Head of Media at The Guardian and now professor, Jane Martinson said in 2012 that
“feminists were sick of a long-running multibillion-pound franchise that left a series of beautiful women as little more than roadkill in the path of the spy we never loved.”
History professor Theodore Roszak called Bond the “embodiment of technocracy.”
These critiques could have just as easily been leveled against Gates, Bezos, or Musk and their lifestyles and beliefs. And for most of the effects of neoliberal economics for that matter.
LORDE EDGE TAKES AIM
GoldenEye was filmed 26 years ago. Bill Gates would have been 40 years old. That’s about the same age the actor playing Bond, Pierce Brosnan, would have been. Pierce was born in Ireland. His father abandoned him and his mother at infancy. At four they moved to London where he was raised by his grandparents while his mom worked as a nurse. When they died he was put in a boarding house. He was ridiculed by British kids for being Irish. He went on to learn commercial illustration at 16, then acting, and worked as a busker breathing fire on street corners. Not exactly the path of a true 007.
Gates was born into wealth and privilege and admits to reading his fair share of science fiction. But unlike Bezos and Musk, he isn’t that interested in taking up life on Mars. His mom instilled a strong since of philanthropy in Bill as a young boy that many have benefited from today. His wealth created my own, so I can’t be too hard on him.
He’s unquestionably the smartest men I’ve been around, but he can’t be the world’s 007. He’s not that smart or ingenious. And while his giving is commendable, I can’t help but wonder if Seattle would have a homeless crisis had a larger fraction of his billions been siphoned off over the last 40 years for the public good. Maybe had the government taken more of his income to circumvent global problems, he wouldn’t have to spend as much money trying to solve them.
Bezos comes from a broken family. He excelled at math, computer science, and engineering. He built an alarm as a kid that would sound should someone try to enter his room. Sounds like a budding 007 to me. Upon graduating as valedictorian, Bezos told a local paper that he hoped
"to get all people off the earth and see it turned into a huge national park."
But what was lost on Bezos, a fierce libertarian, is that Banks was a committed socialist. In a recent New York Times article, Jill Lepore quoted Banks as saying the books were about “’hippy commies with hyper-weapons and a deep distrust of both Marketolatry and Greedism.’ He also expressed astonishment that anyone could read his books as promoting free-market libertarianism, asking, ‘Which bit of not having private property and the absence of money in the Culture novels have these people missed?’
Musk was born into wealth, but his parents divorced when he was nine years old and he lived with his dad. A decision he came to regret calling him “a terrible human being.” He was teased as a young boy and was hospitalized once after being thrown down a flight of stairs. He wrote and sold his first software at age 10, when on to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Science in economics and a Bachelor of Arts in physics in 1989. He was accepted at Stanford to do a PhD in materials science, but opted to ride the internet startup wave instead.
He too was a fan of Iain Banks. Jill Lepore also noted that Musk once tweeted, “If you must know, I am a utopian anarchist of the kind best described by Iain Banks.” That makes two renowned libertarian brainiacs who somehow missed Iain Banks’ socialist agenda.
Last weekend Musk changed his Twitter name to “Lorde Edge.” The speculation is that it’s a derivative of the word edgelord which is “Someone, especially posting on the internet, who uses shocking and nihilistic speech and opinions that they themselves may or may not actually believe to gain attention and come across as a more dangerous and unique person.” It’s a character trait you might expect in a Bond anti-hero.
Pierce Brosnan saw his first Bond movie, Goldfinger, in 1964 when he was 11 years old. His stepfather took him to see it in London. I wonder what the 11 year old Brosnan thought of Pussy Galore and her band of merry lesbian aviators.
The movie ends with Bond and Pussy Galore on the ground having just survived parachuting from a plane. Helicopters are coming to rescue them, but he leans over her and says, “This is no time to be rescued” and pulls the parachute over himself and Pussy Galore as they kiss.
I can imagine Brosnan’s stepdad leaning over and whispering to the young Pierce the words of the character’s creator, Ian Fleming, “Pussy only needed the right man to perform the laying on of hands to cure her psycho-pathological malady.”
The discrepancy between Brosnan’s life and the fictional life of the character he played is metaphorical. England had long played the leading role in world power and dominance but it had been cracked by the U.S. and the fire breathing working class identity was starting to show through. Ayn Rand’s biggest fear was coming true. The grand singularly focused empire was becoming diminished by the tragedy and comedy of the commons.
The talented set designer for the Bond films, Ken Adam reflected in 2008 that Goldfinger was a time when “when the British took off their handcuffs and said: ‘Fuck, the Empire doesn’t exist any longer. Now, we will take over.’” Pussy Galore not only signaled liberation, she provided proletariat comic relief.
Gates, Bezos, and Musk all play the leading role of the enterprising, multi-national capitalist. They’re protagonists to many and antagonists to most. Either way, they’re flawed and troubled humans with troubled beginnings but also brilliant and talented men who have brought much good – an allegory for neoliberal economics.
Modern neoliberal economics has brought, and continues to bring, unmatched prosperity to underprivileged people around the world. But, it’s also created historic income disparities, social strife and anxiety, and it’s destroying the planet. The real psychopathological malady isn’t in the form of lesbianism, it’s in unbridled capitalism.
Truth be told, my entire family love watching Bond movies. Pre Daniel Craig, anyway. I can’t handle the glorified violence in mainstream movies anymore. My daughter laughs at the misogyny, but relishes the moments women rule over men. My son loves the chase scenes, but is outraged by the sexism. My wife rolls her eyes at the absurdities, but cheers on the fleeting female power. I marvel at the set design and gadgetry, but wonder how my teenage kids are interpreting these messages.
My daughter summed it best when I asked her why she like Bond films. She said,
“Sometimes it’s entertaining to watch something you know is just classically bad.”
There are people outside the United States, and some inside, who think that as they watch the absurdities of American gluttony. Perhaps we’ve reached that point England did in the 60’s when the masses realized the empire doesn’t exist anymore.
Many are entertained watching Bill, Jeff, and Elon fly and float as they falter, flaunt, and philander. They are what French philosopher Jean Baudrillard would call the hyper-competent US businessman: “part James Bond, part Henry Ford.”
But what their exploits do, just as Bond films do, is perpetuate a particular cultural narrative that substantiates a societal norm. They lead most members of the dominant ruling class to believe that Bill, Jeff, and Elon’s unique individual contributions, be it corporate or philanthropic, are benefitting society as a whole when in reality they’re mostly benefitting themselves and the dominant ruling class.
Or maybe the joke’s on us and Musk really is casting himself as a real-life sociopathic anti-hero, “Lorde Edge.” After all, the objective for Bond in GoldenEye was to circumvent a space weapon that was destined to blow up the planet with an electromagnetic pulse.
Let’s hope the battery in that Tesla Cybertruck 007 is driving down the Space X tarmac doesn’t run out of juice. That rocket Elon is about to launch just may contain a space weapon he plans to aim back at the planet; fulfilling Jeff’s sadistic boyhood dream of a planet earth free of humans.
Toby Miller. Paradoxical Masculinity: James Bond, Icon of Failure. From the book The Cultural Life of James Bond.