BRICS+ and the contradictions of the new multipolarism
In the last years the centrifugal forces of the world economy took over, left the BRICS bloc ever less connected. Even the hallmark of BRICS economics – rising intra-BRICS and international trade as a share of GDP – suddenly reversed from the 2008 peak, falling steadily before the 2020 crash. Recall, too, that Indian and Brazilian elections in 2014 – won by rightwing Hindu nationalist Modi – and 2018 – by the far-right “Trump of the Tropics” Bolsonaro – contributed to the spalling. In 2019, the latter’s foreign minister even suggested to his BRICS counterparts that they should engage in punitive sanctions against Venezuela.
Another reflection of the unseemly descent into political incoherence was also evident in Brasilia in 2022, where just as Russia began the Ukraine invasion, the country’s vice president (military leader Hamilton Mourão) appealed for a counter-invasion: “If the West simply lets Ukraine fall, Moldova will be next, then the Baltic states, just like Hitler’s Germany did in the late 1930s.” Bolsonaro scolded him, because the week before during a Moscow visit, he expressed his government’s solidarity with Putin.
The recent Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) summit in Johannesburg concluded on 24 August 2023, after a major disappointment: the long-overdue challenge to U.S. dollar hegemony was stillborn due to the bloc’s conservative forces. Yet to the credit of BRICS leaders, expansion of the network was undertaken in an unexpected manner, to include Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But the first test of the BRICS+ as a geopolitical arrangement occurred just over six weeks later, on 9 October, when the Hamas party ruling the Gaza Strip sent 1000 of its fighters across the Israeli border, killing more than 1300 civilians and soldiers, to which Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu responded with unprecedented collective punishment leaving many thousands dead and more than a million displaced from Gaza City. (At the time of writing, mid-October, there was no cease-fire prospect.)
Once again, the BRICS – now a group that could be better termed “BRICS+” or “BRICS11” – are unveiling potentially debilitating contradictions, especially because Iran is traditionally a strong supporter of Hamas (along with Tehran’s allies in Qatar), while three new members of the BRICS have been Western vassals for decades. UAE leader Muhammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan had in mid-2020 signed the Abraham Accords with Israel, sponsored by Donald Trump. In the same process of Israel’s “normalization,” now promoted by Joe Biden, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud was on the verge of a major deal, or so bragged Netanyahu at the United Nations on September 23. This appears to be temporarily derailed by the attack on Gaza, but the underlying tendency towards sub-imperial alliance formation remains powerful given Washington’s sponsorship. In the same anti-Palestinian spirit, Egypt’s tyrannical ruler General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who came to power in a 2013 coup against a Muslim Brotherhood government (and was then ‘elected’ in dubious polls in 2014 and 2019, and changed the Constitution so he can continue to lead after his thugs recently truncated the rise of a leftist candidate), won’t open the Rafah border with Gaza. As he put it just as Israeli’s indiscriminate bombing intensified, “Of course we sympathize. But be careful, while we sympathize, we must always be using our minds in order to reach peace and safety in a manner that doesn’t cost us much.” These three regimes are still considered fairly reliable U.S. allies when it comes to Middle Eastern sub-imperial duties. And the leader of an original BRICS member, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is disturbingly tight with Netanyahu in part because of shared Islamophobia. Similar concerns existed regarding Vladimir Putin’s proximity to Netanyahu – a frequent visitor to Russia – over the past two decades, although by February 2023 the close relationship had decisively faded. This array of forces should lead to a simple question: is the expanded BRICS formation truly in favour of multipolar power, for example to be witnessed by BRICS countries pressing Israel for peace?
BRICS “confronting” war and climate crisis
At the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Meeting in Geneva on 17 June 2022 imperialist powers rejected the vision expressed rhetorically by both Modi and Ramaphosa, for waivers on Intellectual Property (IP) registered on Covid-19 vaccines and medicines. The imperialist states whose leaders had been captured by Big Pharma – the British, Germans, Swiss and Norwegians, who behind the scenes were supported by the U.S., French, Canadians and Japanese – assumed correctly that the sub-imperial Indians and South Africans could be brought back within the fold. This prevented the kind of progress achieved in 2001 when AIDS medicines were taken off IP (leading to widespread generic-drug availability within a few years, and hence a rise in South Africa’s life expectancy from 52 to 65 years from 2005-19). The problem, though, was not only Western patent holders: there were two other Covid-19 vaccine IP holders – China and Russia – which did not support Ramaphosa and Modi. They would have lost had the waiver gone through, although to their credit, both countries rolled out free or lower-cost vaccines to their allied poor countries.
The stakes in multilateral economic foraremain highest for Putin, who on 22 June 2022 in the wake of tighter sanctions, complained to the (virtual) BRICS Business Forum, “Businessmen of our countries are forced to develop their business under difficult conditions where Western partners neglect the basic principles of market economy, free trade, as well as the inviolability of private property.” Note his complaint that imperialism had gone rogue on those basic capitalist principles. This was also reflected in the way more than $300 billion of Russian state assets kept in Western banks were frozen, as well as at least $300 billion held by dozens of Putin-connected oligarchs in overseas assets. (With Russia doing weekly physical damage of $4.5 billion to Ukraine, those frozen funds would obviously be useful for reparations – but then Putin would have yet more weaponry to accuse the West of hypocrisy when applying sanctions, and after all, with soaring energy prices during 2022, his oil and gas export revenues were at record highs.)
As a result, Putin continued, Russia was “actively redirecting its trade flows and external economic contacts towards reliable international partners, above all the BRICS countries.” And beyond trade, there were monetary opportunities to de-dollarise: “Together with BRICS partners, we are developing reliable alternative mechanisms for international settlements. We are exploring the possibility of creating an international reserve currency based on the basket of BRICS currencies.” Cynics would quickly point out that over the prior eight years, two other international financial initiatives – the never-used “Contingent Reserve Arrangement” supposedly providing $100 billion in the five countries’ hard currency stocks as an alternative lender to the IMF, and a BRICS credit ratings agency – were merely hot air. The “talk left, walk right” of BRICS’ role in global finance could be observed not only in its vigorous financial support for the International Monetary Fund during the 2010s, but more pointedly, in the March 2022 decision by the BRICS New Development Bank – supposedly an alternative to the World Bank – to declare a freeze on its Russian portfolio, since otherwise it would not have retained its Western credit rating of AA+. Within that status, however, Fitch soon downgraded the bank’s prospects.
Ironically, until the first ($100 million) default on foreign debt in June 2022, which Moscow blamed on being shut out of Western payments systems, Putin succeeded in abiding by international financial rules. In 2022, he did shift contract terms for payment of Russian exports of oil and gas, which he insisted be made in roubles, to raise the Russian currency’s value. That aside, while acting as a rogue sub-imperialist when it came to the savage invasion of (West-leaning) Ukraine, Putin (unlike his predecessor Boris Yeltsin) has always been a loyal sub-imperialist when respecting Russia’s foreign debt repayment obligations.
At the 2022 BRICS foreign ministers’ meeting, Xi made the main opening speech, and didn’t mention Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Washington, London, Berlin and other Western regimes wave around more billions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated armaments headed for use to defend eastern Ukraine from further Russian annexation, Russian government uses the threat of atomic weapons. That’s one of just two potential ways the West+BRICS together might well push the human race to extinction, with the other being a climate catastrophy, given that Putin’s main Cape Town-based exploration ship last November discovered what it claims are 500 billion barrels of oil and gas offshore Antarctica. So if the Russians really do explore, extract and combust those fossil fuels against new international treaty talks hosted and led by Germany, which we can anticipate Putin will hold in low regard, such a large “carbon bomb” would mean extinction for most life on Planet Earth within coming decades. What better way to advance that agenda than Russia bringing the other four BICS into a new fossil-energy alliance – yet another of Putin’s desperation search for economic allies during this era of intense sanctions.
The sub-imperial BRICS’ extremely contradictory modes of antagonistic cooperation within global capitalism, as witnessed in the run-up to the 2022 Russian invasion, certainly do not excuse the impulses of the imperialist powers to establish NATO military capacity on Russia’s immediate borders. But the dynamics of such geopolitics do correlate to the uneven development of the global system as a whole.
An overarching problem for the likes of Putin, is his own capitalist class reaching limits to the accumulation of capital, as typically happens in a semi-peripheral economy based on export of raw materials suffering highly-volatile prices. Marx’s general theory of uneven development, updated especially by City University of New York scholar David Harvey, accounts for geopolitical tensions during a ‘devaluation’ process in which excess capital exposed to global capital flows must either be defended – or left to collapse due to uncompetitiveness.
In his book The Limits to Capital, Harvey explained, “Under threat of devaluation, each regional alliance seeks to use others as a means to alleviate its internal problems. The struggle over devaluation takes a regional turn. But the regional differentiations are rendered unstable thereby.” The core problem for leaders, then, is that “Regional alliances founder on the rock of international competition and the impulsion to equalise the rate of profit.” The semi-periphery becomes the layer of the global power structure which first takes these problems on the chin.
Russia’s rise up the commodity super-cycle from 2002-14 – before the 2015 oil and minerals price crash – reflected a shift from 1990s-era capital flight by oligarchs, to Russia’s hosting fully-fledged overaccumulated capital. It was at that point in the 2010s, predicted Harvey back in 2003, that such economies “then became competitors on the world stage,” albeit in the form of “what might be called ‘sub-imperialisms’… [in which] each developing centre of capital accumulation sought out systematic spatio-temporal fixes for its own surplus capital by defining territorial spheres of influence.” To deal with economic crisis at home, it’s logical then that Putin seeks more active territorial expansion options.
Neither the BRICS nor the G7 offer an alternative to a system where, driven by overaccumulation of capital (mostly derived from China’s extremely productive east-coast factories), territorial tensions to accept or reject a devaluation of capital worsen. A wide variety of historical and political features are typically cited to ‘explain’ why Russia’s trajectory of regional expansion represents a major threat. But those won’t be complete with contemplating the dynamics of uneven development, especially because they aren’t a matter, just, of Putin’s rogue sub-imperial stance. They are hard-wired into the world-system, and the BRICS and other semi-peripheral sites are just some of the more extreme cases.
The cynism of “green capitalism”: imperial Germany’s run for new fossils
Europe tries to seduce South Africa. Scholz met Ramaphosa in Pretoria in May 2022 – mainly to lobby for a pro-West stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict – following brief stopovers in Dakar, Senegal and Abuja, Nigeria. West Africa possesses major fossil fuel deposits which Scholz wants, since he aimed to halt methane gas imports from Russia’s Nordstream pipeline, long before it was blown up in September. Berlin’s vulnerability to Moscow gyrations worsened dramatically once Western sanctions started to bite. Scholz’s predecessor Angela Merkel had profoundly misjudged Putin, encouraging more trade, investment and finance hoping not only for gas supplies, but a tighter Russia-European alliance. It was a vain, naïve fantasy, given not only the easily-triggered Putin’s expansionary ambitions – backed by nuclear weapons – but also his fury over a blatantly-broken promise made to Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s by her predecessor Helmut Kohl and U.S. leaders George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton: that NATO would not expand east of Germany.
Now, due to Berlin’s increasingly urgent need for replacement gas sources, industrial Germany’s fossil addiction will result in massive infrastructure capital costs to accommodate new demand. This will, in turn, benefit mainly Western oil companies operating in West Africa, especially France’s TotalEnergies and UK-Dutch firm Shell. But it will leave the continent with “stranded assets” that could later in the 2020s result in “Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism” climate sanctions (as South Africa, especially, faces from Europe).
There is no major German oil firm, but to illustrate pressures imposed on Africa to expand self-destructive fossil infrastructure, Frankfurt-based HMS Bergbau last year bought a majority stake in Botswana coal company Maatla. Its CEO Jacques Badenhorst then lobbied Transnet CEO Portia Derby to complete a major coal rail-line extension to the Botswana border. Rather than 80 million tonnes of coal exported from Richards Bay annually, as projected, the current level is below 60 million. But HMS Bergbau’s interest remains for Botswana to export its coal – an estimated 220 billion tonnes (five times South Africa’s reserves and a so-called “carbon bomb” in the making) – including, now, to Germany. Currently only a few thousand tonnes make their way weekly from Botswana to the Maputo port over a creaky 1400km route via Zimbabwe, instead of the more logical 850km to Richards Bay.
This is where Scholz remains a pernicious ally, for as he explained during the press briefing to Ramaphosa (himself formerly a coal tycoon), the West’s anti-Russian sanctions – strenuously opposed by Pretoria – will prevent Europe’s import of Putin’s coal starting in September: “This will work because there are a lot of suppliers all over the globe that are willing and ready to sell their coal to those countries that have got them so far from Russia and obviously there are some as South Africa for instance where we will do so.” (Scholz and Ramaphosa smiled gratefully to each other.)
These severe contradictions could be characterized as a version of “green capitalism’s” cyniscm: For the sake of future generations’ very survival and continental solidarity, Ramaphosa should now be closing South Africa’s coal mines and offering workers and communities “Just Transition” compensation. After all, Germany is supposedly financing such a strategy via an $8.5 billion (concessional, below-market) loan to decarbonise Eskom. But, as cynics point out, Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter plans to use 44% of such funding for new infrastructure based on importing so-called Mozambican “Blood Methane,” even though that would release CH4 emissions (via leakage) that over the next twenty years will be 85 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2 from burning coal.
Scholz’s closest European colleague, French President Emmanuel Macron, visited Ramaphosa a year ago to persuade him that Total’s methane-gas processing plant in Cabo Delgado required thousands of South African (and Rwandan) troops for protection against further Islamic guerrilla attacks. Then the world’s third-largest methane-gas field might soon supply the Eskom grid. But the Climate Justice Charter Movement now calls for a European reversal of the Eskom deal, and NGOs groundWork and the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance are fighting De Ruyter’s proposed 3000MW Richards Bay methane-gas power plant in the courts.
Contradictions over climate sanctions
The language in the Johannesburg II Declaration (the first having been in 2018) illustrates the BRICS’ ongoing obedience to Western neoliberal institutions, as articulated in half-dozen resolutions supporting WTO, IMF and the G20 Common Framework for Debt Treatment.
The simple message here, is that instead of overturning the high table of Western economic power, the bloc is intent on stabilizing and relegitimizing 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.
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. BRICS “oppose trade barriers including those under the pretext of tackling climate change imposed by certain developed countries and reiterate our commitment to enhancing coordination on these issues. We underline that measures taken to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss must be WTO-consistent… We express our concern at any WTO inconsistent discriminatory measure that will distort international trade, risk new trade barriers and shift burden of addressing climate change and biodiversity loss to BRICS members and developing countries.”
The phrasing 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 internalize 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 decarbonize. 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 decarbonization 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.
Antagonistic Cooperation: extractivism, corporate power and military intervention
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 – 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.”
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.”
The BRICS states – with their separate tempos – are not yet imperialist states. 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. 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 labor 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 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-dollarization (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:
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 labor, 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 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.
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 prioritize 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.