Unlike in Durban in March 2013, the conclusion of the BRICS summit in Fortaleza was greeted with massive international media attention. The ostensible source of this renewed interest, following months of bad press for emerging markets, was the birth of the New Development Bank (NDB) and a $100 billion Contingent Reserve Arrangement (“CRA”) between member nations.
Suddenly BRICS seemed to be becoming more than a catchy acronym for investors and challenging critics who charge that the alliance is contentless and largely incoherent.
BRICS also started to appear as a geopolitical presence during last year’s Syria crisis when the US threatened a bombing of the Assad regime, and this year’s Ukraine crisis, acting against Western attempts to punish Russia through sanctions and its eviction from the G8 and G20.
China’s growing dominance of world trade and the increased assertiveness of Brazil and India, leading a coalition of developing countries, together seem to have disrupted the ability of the US and its allies to shape the global trade regime causing the collapse of the Doha round of agreements at the WTO.
Taken along with international investment, trade and GDP figures there seems to be ample evidence of a shift in the co-ordinates of global power. BRICS nations have tended to embrace the narrative of emerging powers, often adopting the grammar of post-War Third Worldism with talk of a “new world order”.
But on closer examination, the agreements actually inked at Fortaleza hardly represent a radical challenge to the existing state of affairs. The CRA, touted by many as an important step in freeing developing nations from dependency on the IMF, actually replicates the latter’s control – requiring borrowers to prove an “on-track arrangement [with] the IMF” in order to access anything over 30% of the credit disbursement.
Both the NDB and CRA require swop arrangements denominated in US dollars that completely contradict the stated intention of weakening dollar hegemony.
Buried within the millenarian phraseology are some more frank admissions of this conservative approach, the BRICS declaration styles its new institutes as a “complement to existing arrangements”.
The states of today’s putatively “emerging powers” are fundamentally different from their radical predecessors whose language they have appropriated, operating in a fundamentally different international context. Some insist that their rise signifies the return of the state in a developmental capacity after its retreat from the economy during neoliberalism.
It’s hard to see this in the case of South Africa or Russia. India has had some experimentation with heterodox economics but even this limited interventionism looks set to end – aside from a corrupted crony-capitalist incarnation as in the Gujarat model – with the coming to power of Modi, a market fundamentalist.
China certainly represents a different case. Its dramatic economic boom would have been unthinkable without the strong guiding hand of the Communist Party and significant state-owned sector. But extreme exploitation and ecological devastation are the prices paid for this version of export-led growth.
In Brazil, Lula’s Workers Party combined neoliberal macroeconomic fundamentals with strong industrial policy underpinned by the state bank BNDES with some downwards redistribution through family-support grants and minimum wage increases and subsidies for soya and other commodity exporters.
Defying the trend within BRICS, the Gini coefficient has come down in Brazil, although it remains one the most unequal nations in the world.
Despite these progressive linings, Brazil is party to one shared feature of the all the BRICS – strong and growing authoritarianism. Its brutal, militarized police force, inherited from the dictatorship, competes with South Africa’s for the annual civilian body count.
China and Russia seem to have finally disproven the old liberal axiom that freer markets and democracy are congenitally entwined. In India, Modi’s election stands to deepen the systemic oppression and social stratification that facile celebrations of the “largest democracy in the world” have always found easy to ignore.
Whatever their differences in economic policy, the nature of their political system or the ideology of their ruling parties, the foreign policy of BRICS nations is determined by the same set of laws. They are all capitalist societies, whose states are driven to accumulate their own geopolitical power and advance the interests of the corporations and elites on which they depend.
With varying degrees of success they are competing in capitalist globalization and its existing institutions. Absent an ideological or geopolitical common end, the cohering factor of the BRICS bloc is an attempt to bend the rules of those institutions slightly in their own favour – but not really to replace them.
Their growing incursion across the global South will not open up developmental pathways out of poverty and dependency by any magic touch. We see this most clearly in Africa.
The voracious appetite of China, India and increasingly Brazil for cheap resources is behind the GDP figures that have triggered the business media’s sudden rebranding of the region from a “hopeless continent” to “Africa Rising”.
Trade between the BRICS bloc and Africa jumped by more than 70% between 2008 and 2012 to $340 billion (more than between BRICS nations themselves).
The growth is based almost entirely on primary exports, overwhelmingly oil, giving it an extremely uneven geography that only includes certain countries. Once resource depletion, environmental degradation and other factors are netted out of notoriously sketchy GDP estimates the optimism seems misplaced – with a 6% loss in annual income by 2007 according to the World Bank (not including the illicit capital flight that accompanies extraction industries.)
On top of this we must factor in broader political economic effects of resource-curse driven growth – the undergirding of a parasitic elite, a state-corporate revolving door relationship replete with brutal policing, ecological devastation, rampant inequality and deindustrialization.
The rush of BRICS corporates and states for land-grabs, financial gaming and resource extraction has generated talk of a new “scramble for Africa” reminiscent of the one launched at a Berlin conference 130 years ago, when the continent’s irrational borders were drawn.
Far from a ladder up, BRICS are helping to reproduce Africa’s traditional role as a peripheral supplier of cheap labour and resources and an outlet for their manufactures. .
South Africa has had a crucial part to play in this, justifying its seat at the table despite its dwarfish size by its position as the “gateway to Africa”. The foreign policy that Mbeki pioneered is mainly geared to opening the continent to penetration by Western and non-Western multinationals through financial and trade liberalization.
South Africa relates to its hinterlands in a similar fashion to other BRICS – with over 80% of imports comprised of minerals and energy but still running a trade surplus from its exports of manufactures. South African retail, cell phone, banking and mining corporates are rapidly fanning out across the continent.
Sandton’s sophisticated financial institutions are positioned as the hub for ingoing investment as well as massive outgoing legal and illicit capital flight.
A similar situation prevails in Latin America, with Brazil pursuing an aggressive policy of transnationalizing its biggest firms and a growing Chinese footprint on the continent. The vanguard of these conquests have been state development banks – both China and Brazil’s are now larger than the World Bank in terms of lending.
Unlike with Western dominated institutes, Chinese lending hasn’t come with “structural adjustments”, instead its typically attached to agreements to source inputs and labour from other Chinese companies, limiting the economic benefits and multipliers for the debtor country.
As China grows in size and developing economies become increasingly dependent on its markets and exports, there are signs its demands are growing increasingly onerous.
There is little reason to see why a BRICS NDB dedicated to infrastructure lending wouldn’t be instrumentalized in the same way and directed to lubricate the extraction of minerals and oil, or to engage in other dubious, destructive mega-projects.
There is also little evidence that peripheral nations are absorbing technologies or other developmental assets from these burgeoning exchanges with emerging powers. In short, Eastern and Southern exploitation often looks little different from Northern.
BRICS claims to talk for the global South in a historical vision of “convergence” under a “new world order” is thus rather hollow. The logical endpoint of the current trajectory is that new imperialist powers will stalk the globe and compete for its resources, not an alternative to capitalism’s extremely uneven development.
If it gets that far, that is. Economists are fond of definite predictions for the date that East surpasses West (2030? 2050?) but all assume that China can manage its enormous challenges and shift to inward-oriented, real-sector growth to keep GDP figures ticking. .
In any case macrostatistics in a globalized world mask the continuing dominance of Western firms of technology, value chains and branding power and overstate the degree of “convergence”.
And despite recent retrenchments, US military “hard-power” still dwarfs the combined might of BRICS, underpinned by the seemingly impenetrable place of the dollar as world money – given a paradoxical boost despite the US sparked crisis.
Nevertheless shift in the economic structure of the world and the distribution of power is real and significant. It appears to be interfering with the ability of the US to manage global capitalism collaboratively with its traditional allies, the EU and Japan.
There may be something inherently progressive to this, and indeed to a greater geographic, national and racial diffusion of wealth and power.
But the opportunities provided by a more multipolar world order will not be delivered from above, South nations will require radical strategies to escape the yoke of both old and new powers.
Niall Reddy is a post-graduate researcher at the Centre for Civil Society, UKZN.
BRICS: Progressive Rhetoric, Neoliberal Practice
All the governments behind the New Development Bank practice intense neoliberalism Patrick Bond interviewed on the Real News Network 21 July 2014
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay. And welcome to another edition of The Bond Report with Patrick Bond, who now joins us from South Africa.
Patrick is the director of the Center for Civil Society and professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He's the author of the recently released book, written with John Saul, South Africa: The Present as History.
Thanks for joining us, Patrick.
PATRICK BOND, DIRECTOR, CENTRE FOR CIVIL SOCIETY: Great to be back with you. Thanks, Paul.
JAY: So you just get back to South Africa. You were in Brazil, where the BRICS countries were meeting. And what is it? Brazil, India--[incompr.] go in order, I guess--Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa. What am I--who am I missing? China, of course. And the headline coming out of those meetings was they're founding this new international development bank that's going to be funded with $50 billion for development money and something like $100 billion for reserves in case there's financial crisis, to help bail certain countries out.
And there's been a debate--we've had one on The Real News, and it's lots of differing opinions around the world--on the significance of all of this. And there seems to be two schools of thought, which is, one, that these BRICS countries that are now very big--the South-to-South trade is now larger than the North-to-South trade, I think by $2.2 trillion I saw in The Washington Post. They're very big economies. They're all of the top ten economies in the world. And that this is a move by them to break away from U.S. financial hegemony, break away from the global finance system dominated by the IMF, World Bank, which, of course, are controlled by the Americans. The other school of thought is this is, within the context of the U.S. managed/dominated global finance system, carving out just a little bit of independent space. So talk--you were at these brick meetings. What's your take on this?
BOND: Yes, indeed, you've nailed it. The question simply is: are the BRICS and anti-imperialist force potentially, especially on the world financial scene, and maybe with geopolitics, many aspects, from the United Nations to territorial contestations, expansionism. Is this is this an anti-imperialist, maybe inter-imperialist rivalry? Or is it, as the great Brazilian Ruy Mauro Marini put it 40 years ago a sub-imperialist project? In other words, is it not against world capitalism but within? And, as the Chinese news agency announced when the BRICS Bank came about this week, this is to stabilize the world economic order. And that's my impression. I know we've seen on The Real News a wonderful debate with Michael Hudson and Leo Panitch.
My sense is that because so much of what the Chinese do (the biggest economy in the BRICS, second in the world) is to use their incredible [incompr.] over $3 trillion of reserves to continue to bail out the U.S. dollar and United States government by buying Treasury bills--and there's never intent to end that. There's a little bit of an easing of dollar buying and deals with Russia recently that entail non-dollar energy-based purchases.
However, the New Development Bank, the $50 billion bank that could go a hundred plus the $100 billion contingent reserve arrangement, they are being reported by some to be the alternative to Bretton Woods institutions the World Bank and IMF that--everyone we talked to from the official delegations who came to the Civil Society summit to brief many of the NGOs and social movements did confirm that these would be complementary institutions. They would operate under what are called sound banking principles. And every president we've seen in these countries, the five BRICS countries with their own development banks, show that they are indeed very much part of a neoliberal, extractivist, export-oriented, and overconsumptionist to model. They aren't really going to break and do anything new the way the Bank of the South was purported by Hugo Chavez before he died as a much richer reform that would have really set up an alternative [crosstalk]
JAY: Yeah, I don't quite understand how one would think they're going to be anti-neoliberal, when all of these countries are as neoliberal as any other neoliberal country domestically, internally--I mean, you could say maybe slightly different in Brazil and maybe not as extreme in Brazil, although a lot of Brazilians think it is, but how could they be anti-liberal when they won't make any--they don't try to--for example, they're privatizing like crazy domestically, wages are low, I mean, on and on.
BOND: That's right. I mean, the only big difference with the pure neoliberal agenda is that at least in a couple of the cases [incompr.] quite substantial state involvement in promoting a quite predatory extractive capitalism. We've certainly seen on this continent, Africa, the worst of many of these countries, the Brazilians with Vale, the big mining house in Mozambique next-door here, the South Africans all over the continent and the Chinese quite notorious for doing deals with dictators simply to extract raw materials and to put infrastructure in place, the same that the old colonial powers did [incompr.] roads and dams and railroads, the bridges, the ports, basically to get the minerals and the petroleum and the cash crops out of the country. Russia's also coming in in a big way [crosstalk]
JAY: Just let me add to the Vale story in terms of this, the way the sub-imperialism works. Vale also owns the biggest nickel mine in Canada, Inco, and essentially forced the workers after a strike that lasted almost a year into a very concessionary contract, which starts to push the Inco workers, Sudbury Canadian workers closer to conditions that are in developing countries. I mean, Vale is a mining powerhouse all over the world and mostly owned by Brazilians.
BOND: Yes. And the encouraging thing, especially coming from some of the Canadian activists and connecting in through the United Steelworkers, is a North-supported South-South campaign against Vale that links up African and Latin American parts of Asia where this big company's very active. And I feel that would be the future of BRICS--BRICS from below, let's call it--of solidaristic work, where increasingly not just Western corporate targets and the IMF and World Bank, but now also some of the major Southern targets are those that in common are displacing peasants and wrecking the environment and basically dislodging any national autonomy for an autonomous development, because they are really replacing, in many cases, the West. They're becoming the same neocolonial kinds of forces that so many people have struggled against. And just because it's from the South and because there's a lot of leftist rhetoric, especially anti-imperialist chatter about the IMF being controlled by the United States, that doesn't mean that we're going to see a gentler and kinder kind of economic development, but indeed all the evidence so far here in Africa is that this is more extreme, uneven, and combined development visited upon people and environment by BRICS-country corporations.
JAY: So let's assume that this is not--this BRICS development, the new bank, it's not anti-capitalist, it's not anti-neoliberal, it goes along with the current form of global finance capitalism. But that doesn't mean they don't want to make some room between themselves and U.S. domination. It doesn't mean that Russia and China, you know, which are very big economies, especially--as you said, China is number two now, and I guess it's not going to be that long before it's the largest economy in the world--don't want to get pushed around anymore within that system. And this was a bit of what Michael Hudson's point was. I think it was--we may go back with those two guys again so we can get a chance to develop it further. But, I mean, World War II, the countries that fought World War II were all part of global capitalism. It didn't stop them from going to war with each other.
BOND: Well, that's the question: will there be inter-imperial rivalries from what is currently a fairly coordinated set of contributions from these five countries to stabilizing world capitalism? One example is the $75 billion that just two years ago the BRICS together, mostly China, contributed to recapitalizing the International Monetary Fund. Now, what they expected, just as you say, is a bigger piece of the pie, a seat at the table. They got that seat, for example, in the Copenhagen Accord, where four of the five BRICS (not Russia, but they were soon to join), they basically endorsed Barack Obama's plan, which left the UN powerless and had voluntary emissions cuts, which aren't really happening and ensure that a kind of [war on?] four degrees--in other words, it was an awful deal, and Obama needed those four of the five BRICS to facilitate and to re-legitimize this most destructive type of capitalism, fossil-fuel addicted. I think what the BRICS want is a little more respect. And in January this year, the International Monetary Fund could not reform, because in the U.S. Senate, the Republicans wouldn't allow them to basically get more voting share.
The problem is that when you see the voting share rise from China, you know, you have to say, well, who's losing? And it's indeed Africa. And then you see the kinds of technocrats that all of the BRICS countries contribute to multilateral governance, and they're basically neoliberals themselves. Certainly the South Africans--Trevor Manuel, the finance minister for many years, has often been mooted as an IMF managing director or a World Bank president candidate, and he's about as neoliberal as you come.
JAY: Okay. So let's say that they are as neoliberal as they come. But at the geopolitical level--like, for example, let's take the leadup to the war in Iraq. Now, France is not part of BRICS, but France, for its own reasons, its own interests, stood up to the United States at the UN Security Council in quite an interesting way. So did some of the other countries. I mean, China, I think, actually could've been, certainly, bolder than they were, but they couldn't get--the Americans couldn't get the votes they wanted to give a clear-cut authorization of the Iraq War. It didn't stop them from doing it illegally anyway, but it was an important moment. And with an institution like this new bank, and perhaps even building on that--for example, right now there's the sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine. There's a story in The New York Times today that it's not going to have that much effect. One of the major Russian oil companies was targeted for sanctions, and one of the sanctions was going to make it more difficult for it to get capital in the Western capital markets. And now, apparently, they're just going to borrow the money from the Chinese, and so the sanction's not going to affect it as much. So I guess my question is is that within this context of global and neoliberal capitalism, getting to a more multipolar world, getting to a point where some of these other bigger powers can push back against the United States, which clearly is the biggest military operation on the planet and is the one that keeps starting major war after major war, is this--whatever room they can create for themselves, isn't this a good thing?
BOND: Well, it could be if the modus operandi operates in a way that reduces U.S. power systematically. But as we've seen, when there are inter-imperial rivalries, that can often lead to a much more dangerous outcome. For example, the way to handle the kinds of pressures that the U.S. puts on other countries--the coalition of the willing, certainly, in the UN Security Council in 2003, the U.S. was unable to get authorization, because the Chinese and Russians and French wouldn't support--they would veto the approval. But, you know, in May they then approved that the U.S. could run Iraq, having invaded it.
What was interesting this week on that front was that the UN Security Council reforms that are being proposed for many years to widen up the permanent members with a veto to move from five to ten by adding three BRICS--South Africa, Brazil, and India, as well as Germany and Japan--those ideas, which you'd have thought perhaps China and Russia would have supported to get more of their allies on board in the Security Council, they didn't. It was quite a revealing memorandum that was released at the end of the BRICS summit in which the BRICS only said that it would be an increased role for the these other three smaller countries, as opposed to China and Russia.
JAY: So this inter-imperialist rivalry is even amongst the BRICS countries. And we even saw this with a big fight between China and India about where the bank was going to be--this new bank was going to be based.
BOND: Well, indeed. There was a lot of face-saving. And I can just imagine these finance ministers, reserve bank governors, and all of their bureaucrats fighting over the fine details. They eloquently and geometrically resolved that by setting up all kinds of mechanisms to appear that each of the five countries got a little piece. For example, in South Africa, Johannesburg will have a branch plant of the BRICS bank, and that will allow South Africa to help control the funding flows in and out of Africa, which is South Africa's so-called gateway role that they've desired, and that would be very much an example of South imperialism insofar as the hinterlands of the BRICS countries are under the thumb of the regional hegemons, South Africa in Africa probably wanting now to have a more regularized extraction system of the valuable member minerals and petroleum from this continent.
However, I think you're right that we will probably see the kind of tensions in a logic of expansionism, territorial ambitions of a Russia and China. Well, Russia now, of course, moving to the West to try to capture some of the ground lost when the USSR fell apart, China moving aggressively even into Vietnamese territorial waters to grab islands, of course the conflict with Taiwan and Japan, these are moments where I think there's a fair bit of danger, and not just in the symbolic sense of territorial expansionism, but actually in potential alliances, that the BRICS will become an inter-imperial force with a more aggressive approach to capital accumulation. And that's where these two logics come together.
That's why I think the Leo Panitch and Michael Hudson lines of argument have to be resolved, because we have to understand what it is if we are facing, from countries in the BRICS, a need for populations to try to discipline very aggressive leaders and those leaders are very much in tune with the capital accumulation desires of their major corporates. They're all very, very different, and our corporates here in South Africa have all run away to London and to New York. They've basically delisted from the main stock market here, and the capital flows out of this country. But in the other cases, big corporates--and state corporates, in the case of China--do have an incredible influence on these geopolitical arrangements. And those are going to be increasingly dangerous, because the room for growth, and especially the ecological constraints to growth, are really facing us quite squarely.
JAY: And when push comes to shove, it seems these nationalist--the state agendas trump the sort of global financial integration. I mean, we haven't had a breakout of war like we've had World War I and World War II, and that probably has a lot to do with nuclear deterrent and things. We've had endless smaller proxy wars. The two certainly aren't incompatible, that you have a shared global finance system and contention and fights that break out into all-out war.
BOND: Well, that's right. You see, the old theory of imperialism of a Lenin and a Bukharin was about these inter-imperial rivalries of states being pushed and pulled by their big corporate elites into their own hinterlands, into colonial orders, that would be then the basis for the kind of tensions that lead to world wars, as we've seen. Things have been different with a superpower in the United States and a kind of imperialism, the type that Rosa Luxemburg described, in which capital meets the non-capitalists, and that becomes the primary focus of the super-exploitative systems. I think that's actually what BRICS represents in a more profound way. The difference is a Rosa Luxemburg kind of approach to studying imperialism, in which capital and the non-capitalists are the key site of super-exploitative tensions, not the inter-imperial rivalry of different powers in the North, but rather the power of the Global North against the Global South--shall we say, in other words, the capitalists and the non-capitalists. And that's where, actually, the BRICS exacerbated and amplified the tensions, and I think that's where a great deal of the social resistance has occurred across the world, the new data from the African Development Bank, of all places, studying protests in Africa of this month, and they've increased even on the 2011 and 2012 rates. And this is because of kind of an intensified metabolism.
JAY: So let's talk about ordinary people, not the elites running all these countries. You know, for people living in the United States, it's pretty straightforward, in the sense that, you know, if you want to take a progressive the position on U.S. foreign policy, you're opposed to its seeking and achieving hegemony and militarization and so on and so on. But if you're in one of the BRICS countries, do you consider this a positive development for your own people? And, obviously, let's start with South Africa, 'cause that's where you are. I mean, is this--you know, it's not going to transform the conditions of South Africa, but is this something positive or not? I'm talking about BRICS and the new bank and all of this.
BOND: The BRICS Development Bank could be a very dangerous phenomenon, because to the extent that the anti-imperialist movements and solidarity movements have actually begun to discipline, say, the World Bank, which is under pressure not to make any new coal-fired power plant loans, the last one being here in South Africa in 2010, $3.75 billion, the biggest such loan ever by the World Bank, that then, that refusal to make these kinds of dreadful loans, pushes the borrowers like the South African government to a BRICS bank. And I think in many ways what we're seeing with BRICS is a recommitment to an extractive and predatory kind of capitalism, desperation capitalism, that will be more dangerous for ordinary movements struggling to retain their own integrity of community, their livelihoods, the nature around them. The proof of that will be in 2016 and when we start seeing what kind of loans the BRICS bank gives.
Now, the rhetoric sounds good. They've--BRICS has actually ask Joe Stiglitz to be one of the main advisers and put a position paper together in 2011. And so what you'll hear this week in Fortaleza, for example, lots of rhetoric about sustainable development and inclusivity. When you hear those words, look at the details, because when they're using them, it often means they're planning to do the opposite, and instead of infrastructure in local currency for water systems, sanitation, housing, clinics, schools, and so forth, we're much more likely to see megaprojects that help multinational capital from BRICS and from the West.
JAY: Okay. So, then, the proof is going to be in the pudding, then. We still have to really see what they're going to do with it.
BOND: And I think the proof is also whether the geopolitical relations tighten up, because if the West gets more aggressive towards Russia, for example, having just thrown Russia out of the G8--it was a G7 meeting a couple of months ago--and then the G20 is meant to meet in Australia and November. Will it be the G19, throwing Russia out for the reasons you've already mentioned? And then the BRICS have already said, well, if you throw Russia out, then make it the G15, because we're also leaving. There's some very interesting maneuvering going on at the level of these multilateral arrangements. So far, all evidence is that the BRICS are stabilizing world capitalism, but there may be some surprises ahead as these geopolitical tensions might compete with the overall project of accumulation.
Patrick Bond is the director of the Center for Civil Society and a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Bond is the author of the recently released books, South Africa - The Present as History (with John Saul) and the 3rd edition of Elite Transition. triplecrisis.com
In Fortaleza, BRICS Became Co-Dependent Upon Eco-Financial Imperialism Patrick Bond 29 July 2014
Contrary to rumour, the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa alliance confirmed it would avoid challenging the unfair, chaotic world financial system at the Fortaleza summit on July 15. The BRICS “are actually meeting Western demands,” as China Daily bragged, “to finance development of developing nations and stabilize the global financial market.”
If BRICS subservience continues, remarked financier Ousmène Jacques Mandeng of Pramerica Investment Management in a Financial Times blog, “it would help overcome the main constraints of the global financial architecture. It may well be the piece missing to promote actual financial globalisation.”
Fawning to finance reminds us of the term Brazilian political economist Ruy Mauro Marini coined a half-century ago, ‘sub-imperialism’: i.e., “collaborating actively with imperialist expansion, assuming in this expansion the position of a key nation.”
Marini described Brazil’s ‘deputy sheriff’ role in Latin America, but the concept also applies to the global-scale imperialist project. Last week as part of the civil society counter-summitry, we launched a collection on this theme in the Fortaleza journal Tensoes Mundiais-World Tensions, co-edited with Rio de Janeiro political economist Ana Garcia. Two dozen writers including Elmar Altvater, Omar Bonilla, Virginia Fontes, Sam Moyo, Leo Panitch, James Petras, William Robinson, Arundhati Roy and Immanuel Wallerstein grappled with the BRICS’ contradictory geopolitical location.
By all accounts, the two overarching problems of our time – as even the most recent Pew global public opinion survey confirms – are climate change and systemic financial instability. In these, the BRICS suffer what in psychology is termed ‘co-dependency.’ The word, according to Lennard Davis in his 2008 book Obsession, “comes directly out of Alcoholics Anonymous, part of a dawning realization that the problem was not solely the addict, but also the family and friends who constitute a network for the alcoholic.”
BRICS are friendly-family enablers of Western capitalists fatally addicted to speculative-centric, carbon-intensive accumulation. Suffering what increasingly appears to be the neurological impairment of a junkie, officials in Washington, London, Brussels, Frankfurt and Tokyo continue helter-skelter pumping of zero-interest dollars, euros and yen into the world economy. This is a hopeless drug-addict’s fix: maintaining policies of economic liberalization that lower national economic barriers and generate new asset bubbles.
Another fatal Western obsession facilitated by the BRICS is emission of greenhouse gases at whatever level maximizes corporate profits – future generations be damned to burn. (The last time the world’s 1 percent seriously tried to kick the habit – and momentarily succeeded – was in 1987 when the Montreal Protocol was signed and CFCs banned so as to halt ozone hole expansion. But since that successful Cold Turkey experiment, neoliberal and neoconservative fetishes took hold and so half-hearted efforts at the UN and other multilaterals to address global-scale environmental, economic and geopolitical disasters have conspicuously failed.)
In short, BRICS elites are no enemies of Western economic hedonists, as witnessed in exceedingly gentle advice they offered in the July 15 Fortaleza declaration: “Monetary policy settings in some advanced economies may bring renewed stress and volatility to financial markets and changes in monetary stance need to be carefully calibrated and clearly communicated in order to minimize negative spillovers.” (This refers to currency crashes suffered by most BRICS when the West began reducing ‘Quantitative Easing’ money-printing in May 2013 – in yet another example of self-destructive co-dependency.)
In reality, the BRICS enable the West’s most self-destructive, hedonistic habits occurs repeatedly in times of acute eco-financial crisis:
•the April 2009 G20 bailout of Western banks via consensus on a $750 bn IMF global liquidity infusion; •the December 2009 Copenhagen Accord in which four of the five BRICS did a deal to continue emitting unabated (they “broke the UN,” according to Bill Mckibben of 350.org); •the 2011-12 acquiescence to the (s)election of new European and US chief executives for the Bretton Woods Institutions, for despite a little whinging, the BRICS couldn’t even decide on joint candidates; •the 2012 agreement to pay over another $75 bn to the IMF even though it was apparent Washington wasn’t going to change its undemocratic ways (the US Congress has refused to allocate the BRICS a higher IMF voting share); and •the refusal (even in Fortaleza last week) of Moscow and Beijing to support the other three BRICS’ ascension to the UN Security Council in spite of their repeated requests for UN democratisation (because that would lead to dilution of Russian and Chinese power). Washington’s co-dependents in Delhi and Pretoria are the most blindly loyal. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) reactionaries and African National Congress (ANC) neoliberals have regular economic, political and even military dalliances with Washington, and the BJP is so irretrievably backward that it won’t countenance even a parliamentary debate about Israel’s Gaza terrorism.
Meanwhile, playing the role of the distant relative, BRICS elites in Moscow, Brasilia and Beijing occasionally fulminate against Washington-London-Ottawa-Canberra-Wellington “Five Eyes” internet snoopery or the Pentagon’s propensity to bomb random Middle Eastern targets. To their credit last September at the G20 summit, they pulled Barack Obama’s itchy trigger finger away after the Syrian regime apparently used chemical warfare against civilians. Vladimir Putin instead cajoled Assad’s chemical-weapon disarmament. And thank goodness the US whistleblower spy Edward Snowden is at least safe in Russia. But it’s likely that BRICS promises to establish new internet connectivity safe from US National Security Agency data theft will be broken.
The greatest heartbreak, however, will be the passing of subimperialism’s financial costs to the BRICS citizenries and hinterlands. Before the Fortaleza summit, economic-justice activists hoped that the BRICS would decisively weaken and then break dollar hegemony, especially given the inevitability of rising Chinese yuan convertibility and the Moscow-Beijing (non-$) energy deal a few weeks ago.
But revealingly, both the New Development Bank (NDB) and ‘Contingent Reserve Arrangement‘ (CRA) announced in Fortaleza on 15 July have this feature: “The Requesting Party’s [borrower’s] central bank shall sell the Requesting Party Currency to the Providing Parties’ central banks and purchase US$ from them by means of a spot transaction, with a simultaneous agreement by the Requesting Party’s central bank to sell US$ and to repurchase the Requesting Party Currency from the Providing Parties’ central banks on the maturity date.” That’s techie talk for ongoing $-addiction: a retox not detox.
The dollar is an inappropriate crutch in so many ways, but aside from an excellent article by University of London radical economist John Weeks, few analysts acknowledge that genuinely “inclusive sustainable development” finance would not require much US$ (or any foreign-currency denominated) credits. Hard currency isn’t needed if BRICS countries – or even future hinterland borrowers – want to address most of their infrastructure deficits in basic-needs housing, school construction and teacher pay, water and sanitation piping, road building, agriculture support, and the like. The US$ financing hints at huge import bills for future mega-project White Elephant infrastructure involving multinational corporate technology. (Like most of our 2010 World Cup stadiums.)
Weeks continues, “The suspicion uppermost in my mind is that the purpose of the BRICS bank, as a project funding bank, is to link the finance offered, to the construction firms and materials suppliers located in the BRICS themselves. Certainly, the Chinese Government is notorious for doing this.” (For example, a $5 bn loan from the China Development Bank to the South African transport parastatal Transnet announced at Durban’s 2013 BRICS Summit resulted in $4.8 bn worth of locomotive orders from Chinese joint ventures a year later.)
As Weeks also observes, “the voting proposal for the BRICS bank follows the IMF/World Bank model: money votes with shares, reflecting each government’s financial contribution. The largest voting share goes to China, whose record on investments in Africa is nothing short of appalling… The warm endorsement of the NDB by the president of the World Bank suggests enthusiasm rather than tension between it and the Bretton Woods ‘Twins.’”
But isn’t the CRA a $100 bn ‘replacement’ for the IMF, as was widely advertised? No, it actually amplifies IMF power. If a BRICS borrower wants access to the final 70 percent of its credit quota, according to the founding documents, that loan can only come contingent on “evidence of the existence of an on-track arrangement between the IMF and the Requesting Party that involves a commitment of the IMF to provide financing to the Requesting Party based on conditionality, and the compliance of the Requesting Party with the terms and conditions of the arrangement.”
The neoliberal bureaucrats who laboured over that stilted language – and even the (self-obfuscating) name of the CRA – may or may not have a sense of how close global finance is to another meltdown, in part because of relentless IMF austerity conditionality. But it does reveal their intrinsic commitment to a “sound banking” mentality, by trying to limit their own liabilities to each other. Current quotas are in the range of $18-20 bn for the four larger BRICS and $10 bn for South Africa (though the latter will only contribute $5 bn, and China $41 bn).
Will it matter? According to Sao Paolo-based geopolitical analyst Oliver Stuenkel, “arrangements similar to the BRICS CRA already exist and have not undermined the IMF. The BRICS’ CRA is closely modeled on the Chiang Mai Initiative signed between the Association of Southeastern Asian Nations countries as well as China, Japan and South Korea in May 2000.” The initiative is useless, Stuenkel observes, for no one has borrowed from it since. Likewise, he tells me, “The CRA is fully embedded in the IMF system!”
What might that mean in future? The last BRICS-country default managed by Washington was when Boris Yeltsin’s Russia – with $150 bn in foreign debt – required a $23 bn emergency loan in 1998. Fifteen years later, four of the five BRICS suffered currency crashes when the US Federal Reserve announced monetary policy changes so as to begin attracting hot money back.
An emergency bailout may be necessary at any time. Here in South Africa, foreign indebtedness is extremely high now: $140 bn, up from $25 bn in 1994 when Nelson Mandela’s ANC inherited apartheid debt and, tragically, agreed to repay. Measured in terms of GDP, foreign debt has risen to 39 percent; even the neoliberal SA Reserve Bank warns that we are fast approaching “the high of 41 percent registered at the time of the debt standstill in 1985.” That crisis and an accompanying $13 bn default split the white ruling class, compelling English-speaking big business representatives to visit Zambia to meet the exiled liberation movement. Less than nine years later, capital had ditched the racist Afrikaner regime, in favour of bedding down with the ANC in what Mandela’s key military strategist Ronnie Kasrils termed the ANC’s ‘Faustian Pact’.
SA Finance Minister Nonhlanhla Nene last week predicted that the first NDB borrowers would be African, so as to “complement the efforts of existing international financial institutions.” But since Nene’s own Development Bank of Southern Africa is rife with self-confessed corruption and incompetence, and the two largest NDB precedents – the China Development Bank and Brazil’sNational Bank for Economic and Social Development – epitomize destructive extractivism, is this really to be welcomed?
After all, the largest single World Bank project loan ever ($3.75 bn) was just four years ago, to abet Pretoria’s madcap emergency financing of the biggest coal-fired power plant anywhere in the world now under construction, Medupi, which will emit more greenhouse gases (35 million tonnes/year) than do 115 individual countries. A year ago, as Medupi came under intense pressure from community, labour and environmental activists (thus setting back the completion two years behind schedule), World Bank president Jim Yong Kim could no longer justify such climate-frying loans. He pledged withdrawal from the Bank’s dirtiest fossil fuel projects.
That’s potentially the gap for an NDB: to carry on filthy-finance once BRICS countries issue securities for dirty mega-projects and can’t find Western lenders. For in even the most backward site of struggle, the United States, a growing activist movement is rapidly compelling disinvestment from oil and coal firms and projects. Here in South Durban, Transnet’s eight-fold expansion of the port-petrochemical complex is one such target of ‘BRICS-from-below’ activists, especially the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize winner for Africa, Desmond D’Sa.
Of course there is a need for a genuinely inclusive and sustainable financial alternative, such as the early version (prior to Brazilian sabotage) of the Banco del Sur that was catalysed by the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Launched a year ago in Caracas with $7 bn in capital, it has an entirely different mandate and can still be maneuvered not to ‘stabilize’ world finance but instead to offer a just alternative.
To help BRICS elites stop jonesing for the Western model of exclusionary, unsustainable capitalism, a revamped 12-step program will be necessary. Even the first two steps of the classic Alcoholic Anonymous program are obvious: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable [and] came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
The cleansing power of political-economic sanity absent in the BRICS elites comes from only one place: below, i.e., social activism. For example, just like any rational South African who loved the World Cup and hated its Swiss Mafiosi organizers, Fifa, Brazilian society remains furious about Sepp Blatter’s politically-destructive relationship with Workers Party president Dilma Rousseff. That and other neoliberal tendencies – such as raising public transport prices beyond affordability – mobilised millions of critics which in turn was met by vicious police repression.
In Russia, recent activist challenges come as a result not only of Putin’s expansion into Ukraine, but attacks on protesters. Civil society has been courageous in that authoritarian context: a democracy movement in late 2011, a freedom of expression battle involving a risque rock band in 2012, gay rights in 2013 and at the Winter Olympics, and anti-war protests in March and May 2014.
In India, activists shook the power structure over corruption in 2011-12, a high-profile rape-murder in late 2012, and a municipal electoral surprise by a left-populist anti-establishment political party in late 2013.
In China, protesters hit the streets an estimated 150 000 times annually, at roughly equivalent rates in urban and rural settings, especially because of pollution, such as the early April 2014 protest throughout Guandong against a Paraxylene factory. But just as important are labour struggles, such as the recent strike against Nike and Adidas.
In South Africa, multiple resource curses help explain what may be the world’s highest protest rate; certainly the labour movement deserves its World Economic Forum rating as the world’s most militant working class the last two years. But South Africa’s diverse activists, including those who on 1882 occasions last year turned violent (according to the police), still fail to link up and establish a democratic movement (though the metalworkers union seeks to change this through its United Front initiative).
In this context, critics are forcing open two crucial debates: first, is BRICS anti-imperialist as advertised, potentially inter-imperialist as the Ukraine battleground portends, or merely sub-imperialist where it counts most: in the ongoing global financial and climate meltdowns? Second, can BRICS-from-below struggles make any difference? The detox of our corrupted politics, a sober reassessment of our economies and a cleansing of our ecologies – all catalysed by re-energized societies – rely upon clear, confident answers to both. zcomm.org