Southern rising

How should activists respond to the emerging powers in the global South, and what hope can we draw from them? In the first of this selection of pieces by Southern writers, Vijay Prashad argues that Latin America’s ‘pink tide’ still offers radical hope, but so far has failed to gain the support from the bigger nations that could really upset the global balance of power

February 1, 2015 · 10 min read

The locomotives of the South – the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) – splutter as commodity prices drop. What trains are able to leave the station do not have enough carriages to carry their populations. So inequality rates remain steady in Brazil, India and South Africa, all of which have seen ‘orthodox’ mechanisms take hold of their financial policy regardless of the temperament of their political leadership.

With certain exceptions, the slow decline of the trade unions and of membership in the mass fronts of the socialist and communist parties is a global problem – leaving many millions of people outside the influence of the left. Meanwhile, the resurgent jingoism of the right pits the working class against itself on the terrain of anti‑immigrant politics.

We see the return of the Great Leader who promises to solve all problems – to take a stagnant economy and make it purr, to take joblessness by the throat and make it cough out jobs. Democracy is given lip service but its constraints are mocked. National glory makes its return, but careful not to mimic fascism – an embarrassment for the elite. The rhetoric of counter-terrorism has allowed the army to leave the barracks from Egypt to Thailand – with liberal elites taking refuge in the generals.

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and India’s Narendra Modi are powerful examples of free market authoritarian populists. They portray themselves as the sharp swords to cut the knots that bind progress. It is acceptable for them to call for austerity – as the suffering of the people is for a greater good (in effect, for the greater good of large business linked to their political parties). The long arm of the law can smash workers’ protests and political opposition and arrest critical journalists for sedition.

Behind closed doors, the real Masters of the World – the G7 – continue their shenanigans, most notably through trade agreements. Policy space for the global South continues to be constrained in international institutions. The pressure on Southern nations to dismantle their food security systems in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is one such example. Another is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a mechanism to export the North American Free Trade Agreement outwards across the Pacific Ocean and down into South America.

Domestic laws would be overriden by the TPP, where the Northern elites would set the agenda. One of the leaked documents suggests that the US is applying ‘great pressure’ on countries to cut through the divergence of opinion on questions of intellectual property, forcing Southern countries to bow the knee before western patents. The successful outcome of these ‘negotiations’ will be a victory for the west, subordinating economies of the South to rules of western advantage.

The record of hope is mixed. On the one side there is the collapse of the Arab Spring – it has devolved into the desolation of Egypt and the bloodletting of Iraq-Syria. Elections in Tunisia are no antidote to the victory of the counter-revolution across the Arabic-speaking lands.

On the other side there remain the experiments in Latin America, where, despite great challenges, popular democracy continues to be incubated. The weakened US embargo of Cuba and the possibility of a ceasefire in Colombia are only the latest indicators of the continued ebb and flow of the ‘pink tide’.

But the undue optimism of the BRICS states, that they would be able to diversify the world order simply by their presence, has fallen short and pressure to forge an alternative order has been blocked. Instead, the powerhouses of the BRICS set aside the Bolivarian-type approach to secure their own entry to the ‘international’ institutions. China might occasionally propose a ‘mutual benefit’ approach, but it is unlikely to push for radical ideas when it takes its seat at the World Bank or WTO. Old ideas such as South-South cooperation have come to mean Southern multinational corporations ‘cooperating’ with Southern countries, rather than the formation of a trade and development regime that privileges wellbeing over profit.

The real alternative, of Latin America’s alternative ALBA trade system, promises human and environmental well being above profit. But the South American states need the BRICS bloc to put their heft behind such a proposal on the global stage.

Vijay Prashad’s latest book is The Poorer Nations. He is a columnist for Frontline and al-Araby al-Jadeed, and writes regularly for Mesele and The Hindu. He is the chief editor at LeftWord Books (New Delhi) and teaches at Trinity College

Response: A seat at the table

Patrick Bond argues that the rising states are still controlled by local elites that act as the ‘western bourgeoisie’s business agent’, and any resistance to empire must be based on class politics

ithin global power relations, a slight adjustment has been underway since the early 2000s. But activists in the old ‘third world’ of very poor countries can be forgiven if they observe – and fight against – what seems an augmentation, and in some cases amplification, of imperialism by a supposedly alternative power bloc.

These rising powers are the ‘BRICS’ – Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa – along with what Goldman Sachs bankers term the ‘MINTs’ – Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey. Together they have grown more rapidly than the west since 2000, though with some extreme differences, including erratic ebbs and flows of accumulation and occasional populist posturing.

Some rising-power leaders have aspirations to be among the top imperialists (certainly Russia, probably China), while others are satisfied to play ‘sub-imperialist’ roles: regional police for greater powers. In nearly all cases, they behave as local legitimators of neoliberal policies. Their corporations often search for profits just as voraciously as western firms.

The term ‘sub-imperialism’ originated in 1965 from Brazilian radical dependency theorist Ruy Mauro Marini, who described Brazil as ‘collaborating actively with imperialist expansion, assuming in this expansion the position of a key nation’. A half century later, such insights appear prescient in the wake of the rise of BRICS.

David Harvey argued in his 2003 book The New Imperialism, ‘The opening up of global markets in both commodities and capital created openings for other states to insert themselves into the global economy, first as absorbers but then as producers of surplus capitals. They then became competitors on the world stage.’

Within this has arisen a sub-imperialist elite in each country, causing systemic impoverishment by fronting for extractive industries and for foreign banks, and facilitating rampant capital flight. Frantz Fanon described such a neo-colonial African elite in his 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth as ‘quite content with the role of the western bourgeoisie’s business agent, and it will play its part without any complexes in a most dignified manner’.

Playing a dignified role now often consists of evoking a nationalist discourse about the urgent need for global managerial reforms, all the while aiming to gain ‘a seat at the table’ without rocking it in the least: talk left, walk right.

In turn this sows confusion in ‘civil society’ groups that under the best of conditions suffer class divides between ‘civilised’ society (advocating ameliorative reforms, typical of NGOs, faith communities and trade unions) and ‘uncivil’ society (social movements seeking more radical changes). Both emphasise human rights as central to their repertoire, with the former stressing political inclusion, rule of law and identity, and the latter stressing socio-economic rights and class struggle. Across the BRICS and MINTs, these groups are engaged in often extremely tough campaigns against their rulers, most recently seen in the courageous Hong Kong liberal and leftist demands for democracy.

Patrick Bond is director of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society in Durban and co-editor (with political economist Ana Garcia of Brazil) of the forthcoming BRICS: An anti-capitalist critique (Pluto Press)

Beyond localism

Benny Kuruvilla from South Solidarity Initiative argues for a new internationalism, with a more sustained engagement between social movements and progressive governments

By many measures, the South today is a contradictory place. While the BRICS challenge western hegemony over international institutions, they still essentially tread the crisis-ridden path of export‑oriented growth based on cheap labour with little consideration to social and ecological costs. Immense wealth and grinding poverty co-exist in much of the South, fuelling recurrent social crises.

Social movements and activists in the South are not only challenging this destructive development model but going beyond resistance to articulate systemic alternatives. Take agriculture, from which millions in the South continue to earn their livelihoods. Global movements such as Via Campesina – the North-South network of peasants and agriculture workers – have advanced the concept of food sovereignty and agro-ecology as a solution: reclaiming peasants’ control over seeds, soils and water, and embracing principles of co-operation and collectivism.

Another inspiring example is the Asia Floor Wage (AFW) alliance of trade unions and grassroots organisations, which fights for a living wage for Asian garment workers, predominantly women. Less than 3 per cent of the retail cost of a garment goes to a worker in Asia. The AFW holds garment corporations in the North accountable by forging a wage consensus across the continent from Pakistan and India to Indonesia and Cambodia. By including basic needs such as housing, food, education and healthcare into wages, the AFW calls for a living wage. It also challenges the ability of companies to relocate to countries with cheaper wages.

There are other examples from the South, such as the Latin American attempt to forge alternative frameworks for international investment and the ongoing effort by more than 100 organisations for an International People’s Treaty for the control of transnational corporations.

The obvious question is whether these initiatives are radically transforming the system. Powerful as they are in challenging development, they don’t always encapsulate an integrated perspective of social and political transformation. As David Harvey recently said, the challenge is to build alternatives that go beyond localism.

This is where experiments in Latin America in building a new vision of 21st-century socialism have provided a much-needed impetus to movements. Countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia have promoted participatory and decentralised planning, environmental consciousness and regional integration as key elements towards transformative change.

In December 2014, the nine-member countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America-Peoples Trade Treaty (ALBA-TCP) celebrated 10 years of advancing a new model of regional integration in Latin America, based on complementarity, redistribution and solidarity. Since 2004, ALBA has created new regional institutions for affordable health care (ALBA-Med), medical education (Latin American Medical School – ELAM), telecommunications (Telesur), financial architecture (Bank of ALBA) and regional payments for trade to challenge the dominance of the dollar (SUCRE). Social movements in these countries are pushing further, recognising that systemic change is a continuous process and progressive governments can often be co-opted.

The current global conjuncture requires a new internationalism – a far more sustained engagement by social movements and trade unions, both South and North, with these progressive governments. We need to build cross-border networks, identifying areas of cooperation and mutual learning to re-imagine a new socialist politics. The axis of hope might currently be in Latin America but who knows where the ‘pink tide’ might spread to next.

Benny Kuruvilla is policy lead at the South Solidarity Initiative (SSI), a knowledge-activist hub currently hosted by ActionAid India. The SSI aims to encourage critical debate and policy intervention on international issues related to India, and encourage solidarity with social movements and progressive actors in the South

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