The Johannesburg BRICS Summit’s unrealistic hype
Yet in spite of the chaos created in the process, the BRICS’ three primary-product exporting economies — Brazil, Russia and South Africa — performed better than expected from mid-2020 after the main lock-down shock, as mineral and fossil fuel prices first crashed but then soared to record levels, and again from March 2022 after Putin’s invasion, when commodity prices rose even higher for at least a few more months.
Even Russia could therefore bounce back surprisingly quickly from intense Western financial sanctions and the seizure of more than $600 billion in overseas assets belonging to the state and oligarchs — sanctions which sent strong messages to formerly pro-Western tyrants especially in the Middle East, that their Western assets were not safe either.
Indeed the financial-punishment overreach by US finance minister Janet Yellen in March 2022 is a major reason for so many BRICS+ candidates now wanting to join a future de-dollarized bloc. They all observe the volatility of political relations with a US State Department that often flip-flops, and not only because the 2017–20 “paleo-conservative” Make America Great Again ideology of Donald Trump was replaced with “neo-conservative” foreign policy in which “democratic” ideals and economic neoliberalism are imposed, if necessary, by force.
In addition to the possible prospect of Trump returning to power in early 2025, a general dilemma for tyrants is that Washington sometimes installs and sometimes replaces client-regime leaders without apparent logic. While that has been a long-standing practice, it now appears more complex due to the power of financial sanctions.
Particularly revealing was the experience Saudi Arabia had, first in 2020 as one of US presidential candidate Joe Biden’s main foreign-policy rhetorical targets (as a “pariah”), given Riyadh’s bone-saw execution of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. In early 2021 Biden announced the Saudi war on Yemen must cease, but shifted tack and went quiet within a year. And as energy prices soared in mid-2022, Biden had changed tack and personally visited Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”) to beg Riyadh to raise oil output (to lower prices), which the Saudi leader refused.
Indeed by early 2023, in another sign of clear disrespect for Washington, Riyadh had not only made a preliminary peace deal with Iran, brokered by China, but began a “petro-yuan” trading system to undermine dollar hegemony. In early August, Washington clumsily attempted to reverse that particularly important de-dollarisation with a package that also included Trump-era Abraham Accord status — “normalizing” Israeli-Saudi ties similar to the UAE in 2020 — which the Saudi leader put on hold until after dust settles at the BRICS summit and the bloc’s newest members are chosen.
With a new BRICS+ beginning to take shape, the most striking features of the candidates now being considered, are their extreme carbon intensity and tyrannical political character, personified by MBS. The full list of first-round candidates to join BRICS, named in early August, by South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor, are Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Honduras, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Morocco, Nigeria, State of Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela and Vietnam.
It is a hodgepodge with no discernable ideology, but abounding with anti-social, anti-ecological, and financially dollar-inoculated self-interests:
*In contrast, there are 13 BRICS and BRICS+ candidate governments that were either against or abstained from the February 2023 resolution: Algeria, Belarus, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, South Africa, Venezuela and Vietnam.
*Hence, from a ratio of four to one in the against-or-abstaining group under the present BRICS, the ratio would potentially switch from 13 to 15.
Retreat from multilateral reform — as is the BRICS’ sub-imperial duty
Given the unstable alliances and motley collection of candidate members, neither the existing BRICS nor a BRICS+ bloc can claim momentum towards the fairer world system they often refer to. For example, BRICS summit statements often articulate aspirations for multilateral reform, as well as potential arrangements for institutional, medical, and financial collaborations that would not rely upon the West. But the results are unsatisfying.
One obvious case was pandemic vaccine development, of vital importance in 2020-22, when COVID-19 killed between 7 million (official) and 31 million people, depending upon “excess death” estimates (which in India, Brazil, and South Africa numbered at least three times the official death toll). And yet while the 2018 Johannesburg Summit promised a BRICS vaccine centre based in that city, but it only materialized in a tokenistic, virtual mode in March 2022. Questions remained about the efficacy of Chinese and Russian vaccines in comparison to the West’s mRNA technology (South Africa even disallowed Sputnik because of dangers for people living with HIV/AIDS).
Another sub-imperial duty is to abide by international financial arrangements. Hence, further false hopes for genuine BRICS alternatives to multilateral economic power arose from the International Monetary Fund’s abuse of poor countries’ sovereignty and imposition of neoliberalism, austerity and privatization dogmas — without genuine BRICS opposition:
There had been enormous hype about the potential to shift out of the dollar’s hegemony, for good reasons:
But such hype was unrealistic, so in June, in the immediate wake of a BRICS foreign ministers gathering, the visions of monetary rebellion were squelched by the lead South African diplomat, Anil Sooklal, who said, “We have never spoken about de-dollarization. What we have done, which is nothing new, we signed an agreement several years ago, an interbank agreement, paving the way to trade in our local currencies.” But the latter is tough going, as a result of enormous trade imbalances within the BRICS, plus vigorous Chinese and Indian exchange controls that make trade-revenue repatriation difficult.
Hence, Escobar predicted more soberly in early August, “The BRICS are not going to announce a new currency in South Africa, first of all because they haven’t even studied the details. It’s impossible. Second, because you cannot start a new currency just like that. It’s a process that could take as long as ten years. What they are doing and they’re going to start improving on, is trade settlements using their own BRICS-member currencies, and expand it to BRICS+.”
Escobar suggested it could take “even 10 years to, maybe, a new currency which is going to be basically a trade settlement currency and not a currency like, for instance, the Euro or the British pound. Something completely different: a trade settlement mechanism capable of bypassing the US dollar ecosystem which, you know, it’s all over the world it’s very hard to escape it.”
Likewise, Vijay Prashad of the Delhi-based Tricontinental Institute admitted to a seminar of the University of Johannesburg in August: “Nobody right now wants to supplant the dollar. I asked people in the People’s Bank of China, ‘will the renminbi supplant the dollar?’ They’re not going to do it. Why? Because the Chinese pride themselves on having capital controls and control over their currency.” He asked, “Are we going to enter a phase where we have a basket of currencies? You know, maybe that’s it, that’s a long time to come, so people who are excited online about dedollarization should calm down.”
The BRICS’ reticence to fight imperialism’s core basis of financial power should have come as no surprise, because in case after case, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — starting in 2009 at the Copenhagen summit where Barack Obama joined Lula, Wen Jiabao, Manhoman Singh and Jacob Zuma for a status quo-oriented deal that they then imposed on everyone else — the BRICS spent the 2010s playing into and not rebelling against, the so-called Washington-Brussels-London-Tokyo ‘unipolar’ order.
From sub-Imperialism to inter-imperialism?
The G20, to be hosted by Modi in Delhi on 9–10 September, is the most logical site for this fusion. In the spirit of Brazilian dependency theorist Ruy Mauro Marini, the fusion should be understood as the sub-imperial powers’ “antagonistic cooperation” with the overarching control of the US/EU/UK/Japan+multilaterals. Antagonisms or not, the G20 members agreed once the body was launched in late 2008, to engage in coordinated bailouts of shaky international financial markets.
But the roots of the imperial/sub-imperial fusion are to be found in the 1990s consolidation of the neoliberal policy project. Since then the West’s control of multilateral financiers, the WTO and UNFCCC have well served not only their but also the BRICS’ largest corporations. Such a sub-imperial status, Marini suggested in 1972 when describing Brazil, represents “the form which dependent capitalism assumes upon reaching the stage of monopolies and finance capital”.
To illustrate, in a posthumous 2019 book, Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin was scathing about South Africa, which, “freed from odious apartheid, is now confronted with a truly formidable challenge: how to go beyond the facade of multiracial democracy to transform society profoundly? The choices of the ANC government have, up to now, evaded the question and, as a result, nothing has changed. South Africa’s sub-imperialist role has been reinforced, still dominated as it is by the Anglo-American mining monopolies.”
Back in 2015, Amin had already penned an essay on “Contemporary Imperialism”, in which he offered this metaphor: “The ongoing offensive of United States/Europe/Japan collective imperialism against all the peoples of the South walks on two legs: the economic leg – globalized neoliberalism forced as the exclusive possible economic policy; and the political leg – continuous interventions including preemptive wars against those who reject imperialist interventions. In response, some countries of the South, such as the BRICS, at best walk on only one leg: they reject the geopolitics of imperialism but accept economic neoliberalism.”
BRICS countries — led by China — promoted corporate power within the multilateral system that they were joining and increasingly financing, and in the process engaged in more profitable predatory extractivism when sourcing raw materials from poor countries. Pursuing this agenda, their so-called ‘going out’ displacement of overaccumulated capital also entailed, as David Harvey (as early as 2003) had remarked, becoming imperialism’s “competitors on the world stage. What might be called ‘sub-imperialisms’ arose… Each developing centre of capital accumulation sought out systematic spatio-temporal fixes for its own surplus capital by defining territorial spheres of influence.”
As for China in Latin America, Simon Rodriguez Porras and Miguel Sorans from Venezuela’s left opposition complained that “The relationship of Chavism with Chinese sub-imperialism would acquire characteristics of true submission. Not only was participation in joint ventures given to Chinese companies, a large external debt was also acquired with China, part of it through future oil sales, to finance infrastructure works contracted with Chinese companies, and also the import of Chinese products.”
Still, Prashad is correct to demand “a great deal more translation into our current period to assess whether the BRICS states — with their separate tempos — are sub-imperial in Marini’s sense. They are certainly not imperialist states.”
They are not yet, to be sure, largely because the Pentagon’s 800 foreign bases and nearly $900 billion in annual spending have no military competitor, even if Russia has more nuclear weapons. But two other critical scholars, Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros, pointed out in 2011 the BRICS’ separate and very diverse material realities: “The degree of participation in the Western military project is also different from one case to the next although, one might say, there is a ‘schizophrenia’ to all this, typical of ‘sub-imperialism’.”
Cases of military schizophrenia include
The situation is fluid, because as Justin Podur argued recently in Black Agenda Report, while “each sub-imperialist is a special case, in Africa, South Africa has been analyzed as a sub-imperialist…,” neither China nor Russia “fit the sub-imperialist mold. They may exercise hegemony — or contest it — in their regions, but they do not do so under the umbrella of US hegemony.”
True, but while political forces remain in flux as various crises continue to unhinge prior verities, it can be argued that China has many sub-imperial tendencies of super-exploitation (through the hukou migrant labour system), collaboration with Western-dominated, neoliberal multilaterals and regional expansion. And the Chinese economy remains beset by overaccumulated capital in need of a spatial fix.
So while Beijing is not (as Prashad notes) an “imperialist” power today by most measurements, nevertheless Xi in 2017 did firmly signal his government’s desire to pick up the corporate-expansion baton passed along at the World Economic Forum: “Economic globalization has powered global growth and facilitated movement of goods and capital, advances in science, technology and civilisation, and interactions among peoples.”
The Russian case is certainly more difficult to characterize, mainly because of the rogue character of sub-imperialism as practiced by Putin. His invasion of Ukraine broke the rules of how far a regional gendarme was typically allowed to roam (though he had gotten away with it in Crimea eight years earlier), as did his default on foreign debt in June 2022.
On the latter point, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov’s firmly-expressed case is that Russia wants to repay debt: “The current situation has nothing whatsoever in common with the situation in 1998, when Russia did not have enough means to cover its debts. Now there is money and there is also the readiness to pay.” In May 2023 Siluanov attempted to restore creditworthiness through Eurobond debt repayments in spite of Western sanctions.
And as Putin would regularly point out, the imperial powers also went rogue in late February 2022 by quickly stealing $650 billion of Russian central bank and oligarch funds carelessly left in Western banks (in violation of rudimentary property rights) and by cutting Russia out of the interbank payment system. Moreover, earlier rogue imperial behavior included the unnecessary eastward expansion of NATO against promises made by early-1990s Western leaders to Russian counterparts, and Washington’s failure to abide by the Minsk Accord when all other parties were willing.
The double burden of imperialism and sub-imperialism
In this context, could the BRICS 22–24 August 2023 summit in Johannesburg be the “mega-game-changing” moment that Escobar hopes for, given BRICS+ expansion plans? And if so, in what direction?
All the signposts point in an ominous direction. In Open Veins of Latin America, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano described how, against Paraguay, the ruling elites of Brazil and Argentina “took turns since 1870 enjoying the fruits of the plunder. But they have their own crosses to bear from the imperialist power of the moment. Paraguay has the double burden of imperialism and sub-imperialism.”
And so do the rest of us: as Galeano remarked, “Sub-imperialism has a thousand faces.” The BRICS’ two-faced approach — when confronted by imperialism’s political and economic legs, as Amin put it — will continue to baffle many who believe the subimperialist leaders when they are talking left, and are blinded to seeing them when walking right.
The only hope remains the expansion of brave vibrant social movements that have emerged in a thousand struggles within and around the BRICS+ countries in recent years, including but not limited to from Brazil’s landless, to Russian anti-war activists, to India’s diverse people’s movements, to China’s prolific social-justice protesters along with Uyghers, Tibetans and Hong Kong democrats facing repression, to South Africa’s still-militant workers, shack-dwellers, public-health advocates and students.
And stir in new BRICS+ inspirations: Algerian progressives reviving the Arab Spring, Argentine anti-debt activists, Bolivia’s indigenous and environmental communities, Egyptian human rights advocates, Honduran progressives, Iranian women, Kazakh anti-authoritarians, Nigerian environmentalists, anti-apartheid Palestinians, Senegalese democrats, and many more… all desiring a world without exploitation, oppression, or planetary suicide.
Those opposed to imperial and sub-imperial power also have a thousand angry faces, and must gain muscles to match.
Patrick Bond is a distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.