BRICS+ emerge from Johannesburg, humbled as sub- (not anti- or inter-) imperialists
Indeed sometimes, when we look more closely at summit resolutions, the BRICS bureaucrats also talk right, consistent with a sub-imperial location in the global economy, in which their leaders openly acknowledge their helplessness to make any substantive change. Before considering the implications of geo-economic frictions that dashed hopes for the BRICS waging a global currency battle, consider language in the Johannesburg II Declaration (the first having been in 2018) illustrating the BRICS’ ongoing obedience to Western neoliberal institutions, as articulated in these half-dozen resolutions:
The simple message here, is that instead of overturning the high table of Western economic power, the bloc is intent on stabilising and relegitimising that “rules-based order” – in spite of a glaring contradiction, namely that its underlying ideology, the Washington Consensus, has caused so much suffering in so many low-income BRICS communities. This obeisance is not unusual, because since 2008 when the G20 was founded, the BRICS have served as the West’s financial and multilateral-policy backstop. It is in such global-scale settings – and in Western+BRICS corporations’ foreign direct investments in poor countries – that imperialist and sub-imperialist interests tend to fuse.
To illustrate, the 2010s witnessed repeated commitments, in word and deed, to reforming voting power at the Bretton Woods Institutions (BWIs). The BWI-relegitimation exercise culminated in a 2015 quota increase into which the BRICS contributed $75 billion in recapitalisation funds, the same year the yuan was included in the official basket of IMF official currencies. China’s IMF voting share increased by 37 percent that year, Brazil’s by 23 percent, India’s by 11 percent, and Russia’s by eight percent, but this rise was not mainly at the West’s expense.
The two countries that lost the most voting shares were Nigeria and Venezuela (at 41 percent each) and even South Africa fell (21 percent). China’s vote rose from 3.8 percent to 6.1 percent of the total, and the five BRICS were allowed (by Western managers) to nearly reach the 15 percent level at which veto power can be operated. But the impact of this influence was felt neither in changes to Washington Consensus policies, nor in the desired “leadership positions in the Bretton Woods institutions.” The BRICS made no effort to collectively contest the European-held IMF managing directorship when it changed hands in 2011 and 2019, not when World Bank presidents were imposed by the U.S. in 2012, 2019 and 2023. Moreover, there has been no sighting of the much-fabled $100 billion BRICS Contingent Reserve Arrangement alternative to the IMF. And especially in its South African portfolio, the BRICS New Development Bank has repeatedly provided corrupt borrowers with inappropriate loans.
The coming of climate sanctions, at a time of currency-reform reality check
There was, however, a degree of friction between the BRICS’ neoliberal pro-trade faction, on the one hand, and the West on the other, relating to inclement “climate sanctions” in the form of Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanisms which, starting in the European Union, will impose tariffs on imports with high levels of greenhouse gas energy embeddedness:
The phrasing here represents a version of climate denialism, because there are already extreme distortions in international trade, investment and finance due to the capitalist system’s failure to internalise corporate greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and resource depletion into price calculations. Given the threat climate catastrophes and ecocide pose to the world, especially to the BRICS+ countries, the desire to retain prevailing anti-ecological distortions is “the greatest market failure the world has seen,” according to British economist Nick Stern.
And repeatedly since 2021, the host South African ruling class – both state and corporate – reiterated that coming Western climate sanctions against energy-intensive exports are the main reason the economy must decarbonise. Because of the excessive coal-fired power embedded in the country’s exported products, a tariff will be imposed by countries that have adopted higher carbon taxes – sometimes $100/tonne compared to SA’s $0.35/tonne – so as to prevent ‘carbon leakage’. Such tariffs could well be devastating to the Energy Intensive Users Groups firms – mainly Western multinational corporations logically resist decarbonisation because they see less baseload and higher capital costs from solar, wind and storage.
Hence there are sometimes terribly important differences between the material interests of imperial and sub-imperial economies. Mostly, the concrete material interests broadly coincide, insofar as BRICS ambitions are still to achieve a more substantive role in multilateral corporate rule, not to upend it (as so many committed to hype and hope like to pretend). On nearly all occasions that the more insistent South voices raise international economic justices as a concern, the temptation is to support their rhetoric (even when unmatched by deeds), but climate sanctions against mega-emitters in the BRICS+ is not one of those times.
The other major friction that has regularly emerged at the BRICS meetings is over currency and monetary relations, especially since financial sanctions were imposed on Russia in March 2022 – including by the BRICS New Development Bank (in which Moscow holds an 18 percent ownership share), as confirmed by its new president Dilma Rousseff. Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva argued to the other heads of state gathered in Johannesburg, “The creation of a currency for trade and investment transactions between BRICS members increases our payment options and reduces our vulnerabilities.”
And a South African presidency official, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, was especially annoyed about the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (Swift) system, because after invading Ukraine, “Russia is now excluded from Swift, though there are no UN sanctions against the Russian Federation. As BRICS members, we are entitled to look at mechanisms of trading with each other without being hindered by interests outside our own national interests and UN interests.”
But these sentiments, as well as proposals for either a BRICS gold-backed or central bank cyber-based currency, or for the Chinese renmimbi to become more convertible, were all met by a tough reality check. Rousseff only expressed the mild ambition to raise the BRICS Bank’s local-currency loan portfolio from 22 to 30 percent by 2030, in spite of the damage done by hard-currency loans. And as for BRICS state officials, according to South Africa’s ex-Marxist – now decidedly neoliberal – finance minister Enoch Godongwana, “We have no intention to displace the dollar. It’s going to be difficult for countries that are trading largely with the Western world, like South Africa, to say ‘I can displace the dollar’ because I still trade with them heavily.”
Sim Tshabalala, chief executive officer of the main international South African financier, Standard Bank, reminded the BRICS Business Council and heads of state, of “the necessary characteristics of an international reserve currency. These include being a currency issued by a central bank with very high credibility in the implementation of monetary policy; being the currency of a state or supranational entity with an equally strong track record on fiscal policy and meeting its debts; being freely available in large quantities in many jurisdictions; and full convertibility at all times. This set of characteristics cannot be quickly wished – or agreed – into existence, but can only emerge over multiple years as a track record of impeccable credibility and very wide use is built up”
To be sure, in early 2023, the U.S. Dollar nearly lost its supposedly impeccable credibility as the Republican House of Representatives brought the country to the verge of default on public debt. But even so, the Dollar’s use in the Swift international payments systems (not including intra-Eurozone deals) was 59 percent, compared to the Euro at 14 percent, the British Pound at just under 6 percent, the Yen at 5 percent, the Canadian Dollar at nearly 3 percent, and just over 2 percent for the Chinese Renmimbi. And in addition to illiquidity in interbank transfers, local analyst Jackie Cilliers provided other reasons for pessimism:
“There is no prospect of a replacement for the dollar in the foreseeable future. Trade among BRICS countries is too small to sustain a common currency. It only makes sense to trade in national currencies (not freely convertible) if the trade balance between the countries is more or less equal. Russia, for example, recently sold lots of oil to India, dealing in rupees. But because India exports much less to Russia than it imports, Moscow now sits with rupees it cannot spend or convert – except to buy goods from India. China’s renminbi isn’t sufficiently convertible and lacks the deep capital markets, market transparency, independent central banks and supporting financial institutions of Western banks. There are also perceptions of risk associated with China’s future – the country is an autocracy that will struggle to maintain stability as economic growth diminishes. India is also bound to oppose a common currency, given its concerns about China as a regional and potential global competitor.”
The ‘sub-imperialism!’ slur – and counter-slurs
In the context of such an adverse balance of power, there remain three BRICS narratives, which might be labeled ‘hype,’ ‘hope’ and ‘helplessness.’ In some cases, even the most hopeful or hype-prone commentators will surrender to evidence of sub-imperial behavior; shortly before the Johannesburg summit, Brazilian journalist Pepe Escobar – briefed mainly by Russian officials – disgustedly observed the heated controversy over whether Russia’s president would come to Johannesburg, in the wake of the International Criminal Court (ICC) finding that tens of thousands of Ukrainian children had been kidnapped, a war crime:
“This was South Africa giving way to pressure from the West on the Rome Statute of the ICC, basically saying that Vladimir Putin should be arrested if he touches down on any signatory of the ICC… You know, the fabled ‘Hybrid War’ techniques, applied forcefully over Pretoria and Johannesburg. And because they are the weakest link inside the BRICS, they had to give up.”
But for those in the first two categories, i.e., who have major political commitments to hyping BRICS or, at minimum, investing hope in the bloc’s potential, it is extremely irritating to be confronted with the argument that the bloc is actually helpless: it has thus far served not as an anti-imperialist alternative to the economic power structure of the West, but instead as a sub-imperial amplifier. This irritation logically leads to caricature-type slurs.
For example, “I really feel that the trots have become extremely dangerous with their nonsense on sub-imperialism,” controversial philanthropist Roy Singham wrote to a mutual friend last year: “They have become apologists for the US empire in its key objectives despite their pretense otherwise.” And in the same spirit, geopolitical YouTuber commentator Danny Haiphong remarked to Ben Norton in early August,
“I think there are some who are real like BRICS naysayers. I don’t know if you’ve seen them. They’re, you know, there’s a there’s a whole strand. Even people like Patrick Bond and some others who call BRICS countries sub-imperialists… They basically [repeat] the whole Cold War line of, well, neither Washington nor Beijing. Neither Washington nor the Soviet Union, oops it’s actually Russian Federation. You know, like, there is a mentality there.”
“These people, they don’t know anything about economics. They don’t know anything about developing socialism… These people are profoundly un-serious and they don’t understand the basics of imperialism. And again, they’re wrong about everything. People like Patrick Bond, they were wrong about Yugoslavia, they were wrong with the Soviet Union, they were wrong about Cuba, they’re wrong about Nicaragua, they’re wrong about Venezuela, they were wrong about the war and Libya, which they all supported. They were wrong about the war in Syria, which they all supported. And today they’re wrong about Russia and China, supposedly being imperialist. And they’re wrong about BRICS being another voice of neoliberalism...
“I mean you can see where history is moving. It’s very clear what direction the BRICS is headed in, and that explains why so many countries in the global South, including countries that have historically been Western allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, that’s why they’re also interested in joining and getting involved in this. Because as the world becomes more and more multipolar and as Western imperialism is in crisis and declining, that provides so much more breathing room and space for countries in the global South to pursue new economic paths of development, including socialism, like we see in China, like we see in Vietnam, like we see in Lao, in Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia."
“All of these countries are on board with this and it’s so funny because we’re told to listen to, like, you know, Patrick Bond, who’s a white guy in South Africa. Not, I mean you know, there can be white people who have good analysis of this. Right, like I’m a white guy, but like, come on, a white guy in South Africa, who’s constantly criticising every Global South Liberation struggle, just reinforcing this kind of neo-colonial history.”
Imperialism’s invitation to join – not fight – global corporate power
What, then, is the concept of sub-imperialism all about? In the spirit of its original analyst, Brazilian dependency theorist Ruy Mauro Marini, the BRICS bloc can be understood as not only acceding to imperialism in the manner discussed above, in which a ‘deputy sheriff’ function is played for global corporate capitalism. In addition, this location also reflects what Marini termed the main sub-imperial powers’ “antagonistic cooperation” with the U.S.-EU-UK-Japan-multilaterals’ and corporates’ overarching control.
As an example, members of the G20 – including the five BRICS states plus two new BRICS+ members (Argentina and Saudi Arabia) – agreed, when the body was launched in late 2008, to coordinate bailouts of what were then crashing Western financial markets. And ever since, they have behaved – sometimes grudgingly – in harmony (aside from Russia being hit with deserved financial sanctions and asset seizures for its ongoing attempt at Ukraine’s re-colonisation – hopefully to eventually be turned over for war reparations).
The roots of contemporary 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.” External expansion is required to maintain profits at an acceptable level as the society stagnates, because of “capital accumulation based on the super-exploitation of the working masses – urban as well as rural – and the expression of the hegemony conquered, thanks to the crisis, by the industrial monopolies and by national and international finance capital.”
To illustrate how this appears in the BRICS host site of Johannesburg, in a posthumous 2019 book, Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin was scathing about a 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 African National Government 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.”
Already in 2015, Amin had penned a Monthly Review essay, “Contemporary imperialism,” where he offered this metaphor about the BRICS: “The ongoing offensive of United States/Europe/Japan collective imperialism against all the peoples of the South walks on two legs: the economic leg – globalised 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.”
Five years ago, Siphamondli Zondi – one of South Africa’s leading BRICS authorities, based at the University of Johannesburg – made a similar point:
“Though some of the countries in the G20 come from the periphery of the world system being developing countries, the constant re-arrangement of global power results in them being included in the centre and thus becoming quasi-insiders. They become what Immanuel Wallerstein calls a semi-periphery or what Patrick Bond refers to as sub-imperial powers. In the big scheme of geopolitics the G20 members from the South have become somewhat insiders working with the centre of global power to maintain the status, working for reforms rather than fundamental transformation.”
While demanding (usually tokenistic) multilateral reforms, BRICS countries – led by China – have long promoted corporate power within a global corporate-enablement system they were joining – and also increasingly financing. In the process they engaged in more profitable predatory extractivism when sourcing raw materials from poor countries. Pursuing this agenda, their 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.”
When it came to China’s ‘going out’ as far as 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, Tricontinental Institute director Vijay 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, in 2011 pointed out 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
Still, the antagonistic cooperation across sectors remains 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 …” But 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 U.S. 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 still 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 including relative control of multilateral institutions, nevertheless Xi in 2017 did firmly signal his government’s desire to pick up the capitalist-expansion baton passed along at the World Economic Forum, just as corporate-neoliberal Barack Obama was replaced by protectionist-xenophobe Donald Trump. As a sign of the times in 2023, the latter’s Sinophobia has only been amplified by his successor, Joe Biden, who is intent on decoupling China from high-tech circuits of capital – in turn suggesting how a U.S. relationship with a generally-reliable sub-imperial partner could evolve into a far more serious inter-imperial rivalry, especially if Taiwan or South China Sea become sites of military competition.
The Russian case is certainly more difficult to characterise, 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, though, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov firmly expressed a desire 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 billions 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, as well as Washington’s failure to abide by the Minsk Accord when all other parties were willing.
The double burden of imperialism and sub-imperialism
One of the world’s leading social-democratic economists, Branko Milanovic, blogged one of the most BRICS-hopeful remarks about the Johannesburg summit:
“The fact that an increasing number of countries want to join BRICS cannot be ignored or taken lightly. BRICS’ refusing to participate in new global trade, proxy or actual wars may make such wars less likely. And BRICS’ economic clout may help reduce some of the glaring economic imbalances between the rich, middle-income, and poor nations across the world.”
These three sentences could easily have been reversed, with a bit more probing. The fact that an increasing number of countries want to join BRICS can be ignored and taken lightly, given that the bloc has not accomplished anything substantive over the past 15 years (especially when it comes to geopolitics). And as the Johannesburg meeting confirmed, they’re simply not in a position to advance even rudimentary de-dollarisation (aside from a trivially-small increase in contradiction-riddled local-currency finance and trade).
Moreover, BRICS’ continuing participation in new global trade, proxy or actual wars have made such wars much more likely, given that:
1. The world’s “deglobalisation” process (lower trade/GDP than at peak in 2008) has been most decisive for nearly all of the BRICS+ economies, in part because of China’s core role in global capitalism’s overproduction crisis;
2. India is putting up even more protectionist barriers to Chinese investment and trade, closely following the Trump-Biden model;
3. The BRICS New Development Bank is still committed to imposition of financial sanctions against Russia;and
4. BRICS+ countries continue to feed the world’s most dangerous proxy wars and direct wars, what with Iran supplying Russia with murderous drones, South Africa selling weapons to NATO countries and recently buying AK47s from Russia for use by Pretoria’s troops against the northern Mozambique insurgency; and Brazil supplying (apparently fragile) Embraer jets to the Wagner Group; etc etc. etc.
And BRICS’ economic clout is already amplifying the most glaring economic imbalances between and within the rich, middle-income, and poor nations across the world, given especially China’s role in the global division of labour, which ensures its firms’ neo-colonial minerals extraction from Africa inadequately compensates the continent’s citizenry, and that climate damage gets worse and worse.
In this context, the BRICS summit in Johannesburg was neither the mild progress towards multipolarity desired by global reformers, nor the “mega-game-changing” moment that Escobar had hoped for. It is a much more humble time for all concerned, even if to be sure the period is far more portentous for the BRICS than in mid-2022 at the bloc’s nadir. But given the balance of forces, 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 sub-imperialist leaders when they are talking left and are blinded to seeing them when walking right.
Nearly all the BRICS exhibit features of extremism and super-exploitation, so it is perfectly appropriate that the summit host site was Johannesburg, led by one of the world’s most criminal corporate elites (bested recently in PwC’s ‘Economic Crime and Fraud Survey’ only by businesses from Mumbai and Shanghai) and the world’s most unequal city, within the world’s most unequal country. The only hope remains the expansion of 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.
A few of these were on display at brics-from-below protests in Sandton and central Durban on August 23, including Ukraine solidarity, human rights (including Kashmiris and Muslims in India), and especially climate change and anti-extractivism. The Mining Affected Communities United in Action network, for instance, demanded that the BRICS should “break out of the imperialist super-exploitation models of wealth extraction, and prioritise the social and economic distribution of the mineral wealth within the framework of a Just Transition.”
And then stir in new BRICS+ inspirations: Argentina’s anti-debt and anti-gas activists, Egyptian human rights advocates and Iranian women. And in the next expansion round, perhaps we will meet Algerian progressives who revived the Arab Spring in 2019, Bolivia’s radical indigenous and environmental communities, Honduran progressives, Kazakh anti-authoritarians whose early-2022 protests were brutally suppressed with South African weaponry, Nigeria’s prolific environmentalists and social movements, Palestinian activists sick of Fatah’s conciliation to Israeli apartheid, Senegalese democrats, and many more… all desiring a world without exploitation, oppressions and planetary suicide. Those opposed to imperial and sub-imperial power also have a thousand angry faces and must now gain muscles to match.