Musk against China on the Brazilian board

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By HUGO ALBUQUERQUE*

Elon Musk's undeniable, but obvious, economic interests, which were not realized in post-Bolsonaro Brazil

Elon Musk suffered a slight fall of his fortune in 2023, is under heavy criticism for his management at X/Twitter, while hovering doubts about the future of his electric car manufacturer, Tesla, and his old questions about his aerospace experiments. In the midst of this, he appears on the Brazilian news, accusing the Brazilian justice system of promoting censorship with the consent of the Lula government.

This is not Elon Musk's first bombastic intervention in South American politics. In 2020, he had already attracted media attention for defending the 2019 coup d'état in Bolivia, tweeting that “let's hit whoever we want” – in response to a provocation that the overthrow of Evo Morales had the finger of his Tesla, due to the generous Bolivian reserves of lithium, the metal necessary for the manufacture of electric car batteries.

Now, he attacks Brazil based on a dubious dossier, whose flagship was a threat to arrest X employees, wrongly credited to Minister Alexandre de Moraes. In fact, it was a request from the Public Ministry of São Paulo in the course of a usual investigation against organized crime – as has now been admitted Michael Shellenberger, the American journalist who produced the Twitter Files Brazil.

The rest of the complaints that preceded Elon Musk's arrival at the debate do not bring any news: it is a patchwork of the Fake News investigation. And obviously, not even Musk himself believes what he says, since X has a lenient stance with the governments of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey or Narendra Modi in India – certainly more restrictive than Lula's Brazil.

In addition to Musk's banalities, what matters in this conversation are the undeniable, but obvious, economic interests, which were not realized in post-Bolsonaro Brazil. From the hardships to approve the use of Starlink in Ministry of Education projects to Chinese competition in Brazil, with the installation of plants by the electric car manufacturer BYD, Musk's competitor, and the Chinese advance over the Brazilian lithium market.

Elon Musk and “technofeudalism”

Recently, Elon Musk began to defend trade barriers against Chinese electric cars, after years of derision – as in the famous laugh about Chinese electric cars, in an interview 2011 – and the subsequent measured respect for BYD. Ironically, Elon Musk maintains Tesla industrial plants in China, where X/Twitter is banned for not complying with local legislation on social networks.

After being one of the darlings of Barack Obama's administration, which lent him credibility even among his dubious space ventures, Elon Musk has gotten closer to Donald Trump in recent years, in a complex relationship, but which resulted in a beautiful evolution of his personal fortune – and also his conversion to the theses of alt right American as the “theory of big replacement” from white people, as a left-wing program, or anti-Chinese protectionism.

Elon Musk's adherence to Trumpism seems less like a manifestation of support, as it was at first, and more like a journey of no return, as it was sustained throughout Joe Biden's administration. And this is also indicated by Elon Musk's alignment with far right international, their narratives and networks, as in the Brazilian episode – where Elon Musk aligns himself with the discourse of Bolsonarism.

“Authorial entrepreneurship”, encouraged by Obama, Trump and Biden, manifests this tendency to call technofeudalization, as pointed out by Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis: the rise of personalist business leaders, with digital platforms replacing markets – and, we add, under the personalist leadership of Musks or Bezos.

In this sunset of the West, Elon Musk appears as a tycoon and, at the same time, brand and poster boy for himself, an image figure that works as an antenna for dispersed capital flows – ready to generate titanic ventures that hang on a rope. wobble, while they balkanize the local economic system, with the authorization of the very State that it fragments.

Musk (and Washington) against China

Although Elon Musk's Sinophobia is Trumpist, it, paradoxically, coincides with that of Janet Yellen, Joe Biden's polite Treasury Secretary, who recently visited Beijing, bringing with her the slogan of “China's excess industrial capacity” – even though many of those industries are Western, including gigafactory Tesla in Shanghai, with its 20 thousand employees.

Given Janet Yellen's dubious and eclectic juxtaposition of economic concepts, there does not seem to be an American indisposition towards the old China: the one that was restricted to being an industrial assembler of Californian projects. But the same can no longer be said about China's recently asserted vocation to produce its own products, brands and technologies, exporting industrial capital, as in the case of arrival of Chinese BYD in Bahia.

Behind this, Chinese market socialism, despite having generated its corporations and billionaires in symmetry with the West, seems to have adopted a approach different under the presidency of Xi Jinping. From the framing of billionaires like Jackie Ma or Zhang Yiming, founder of TikTok, to the campaign to rectify its national financial system – as in the event of the emptying of powers of its central bank, as Iara Vidal points out.

For the Chinese, in terms of trends, having BYD factories in Brazil is more relevant than having a giant Tesla factory in Shanghai, even though this presence of industrial capital from the West has served to gather the necessary resources to automate their production. technology – and is still necessary. Although Americans realize this, they still do not have an option of scale and efficiency to replace China.

The result is this love-hate relationship in which Elon Musk suggests sanctioning Chinese companies, even though he himself produces in China - and that in Brazil he fights less over the installation of factories and more over access to lithium for the production of batteries; our country is the fifth largest world producer of the metal and has influence on the Argentines, Bolivians and Chileans, the members of the “lithium triangle”.

Despite its GDP per capita 3,5 times less than America's in 2022, China makes up for this with its titanic scale – a population almost five times larger than America's – and a systemic ability to reallocate those resources efficiently towards state-of-the-art technology, a public goal of the US presidency. Xi, within a policy of “keeping [or trying to keep] the genie in the bottle” with regard to his large corporations. 

China, which, by the way, collects successes in its space program, such as, for example, in its lunar venture, while Elon Musk's rockets fail – and lunar modules also fail of NASA, once a leader in the space race. Thus, the Chinese risk finding a shortcut to leverage their relative wealth faster than expected, moving from quantity to quality, as one of the dialectical laws prescribes.

Muskism, senile disease of Fordism

The platform, the core of Yanes Varoufakis's “technofeudalism”, however, is yet another offshoot of the Fordism assembly line, which intrinsically changed industrial production. Its creator, Henry Ford, a fascist and anti-Semite, was also obsessed with the Amazon, where he built an industrial model city, a megalomaniacal enterprise in the style of what Musk does today, as I pointed out with Gregório Gananian na Jacobina Magazine.

While Henry Ford's adventure in the Amazon was the undertaking of rising American capitalism against declining British capitalism, which imposed restrictions on the purchase of latex from Malaysia, Musk's conversation begins exactly with American decadence – in a context in which the factory Chinese company BYD, which takes the lead, will be built in Bahia, ironically, in an industrial complex that previously was used by Ford itself.

Therefore, the two theses about this offensive, that it is due to Elon Musk's great political project connected to the global far right and his immediate economic interests, are in fact just two sides of the same coin – in a campaign that has to do with everything, except “freedom of expression”, where the STF is chosen as a target because it is perceived as a lieutenant to the attacks of Bolsonarism.

In this sense, Brazil appears as a space for the circulation of capital not framed by Western restrictions, capable of negotiating with all parties and receiving investments from both sides – which does not interest Musk, who needs a government subservient to the Western axis. and protectionist barriers and, also, an industrial China, but conditioned to the Euro-American project.

Although the term technofeudalism is a delicious slogan, and illustrates the sensation of erosion of the system in specific domains, both the term ends up hiding the extent to which this is maintained by background state action, and that the transition is not from markets to platforms , but from assembly lines to platforms – a chain that never ceases to demand hardware, Gadgets and a very material economy, with its environmental and social cost.

In this scenario, this technofeudal trend, where sometimes Elon Musk, sometimes Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon, appear as protagonists seems to be the way in which the West organizes politics for this platform economy, in a kitsch version of Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo. While the Chinese go against the grain, advocating for the rationality of the project and the orderly freedom of these capital flows.

Current capitalism ended up, ironically, letting go of Quesnay or Smith to embrace Colbert, the long-lived general controller – a finance minister – of Louis their still powerful gunboats.

* Hugo Albuquerque is publisher of Jacobin Brasil, editor of Autonomia Literária, master in law from PUC-SP, lawyer and director of the Institute for Humanity, Rights and Democracy (IHUDD).

Originally published on the website OperaMundi.


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