Rising powers, people rising: neo-liberalization and its discontents in the BRICS countries
Alf Gunvald Nilsen & Karl von Holdt (Globalizations) 12 June 2018

The rise of the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, China, India, and South Africa – has called into question the future of Western dominance in world markets and geopolitics. However, the developmental trajectories of the BRICS countries are shot through with socio-economic fault lines that relegate large numbers of people to the margins of current growth processes, where life is characterized by multiple and overlapping vulnerabilities. These socio-economic fault lines have, in turn, given rise to political convulsions across the BRICS countries, ranging from single-issue protests to sustained social movements oriented towards structural transformation. This article presents an innovative theoretical framework for theorizing the emerging political economy of development in the BRICS countries centred on neo-liberalization, precarity, and popular struggles. It discusses the contributions to this special issue in terms of how they illuminate the intersection between neo-liberalization, precarity, and popular struggle in Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

The onset of the twenty-first century has witnessed substantial shifts in the vectors of economic and political power that undergird and structure the workings of the world-system. Whereas the unravelling ofstate-leddevelopmentalismin theThirdWorldandthecollapseof communism inEastern Europe inthe latetwentiethcentury initiallyseemed tosignal an ‘endof history’ thatpivotedaround American hegemony, developmental shifts in the new millennium have cast doubt on such diagnoses. It is above all the rise of the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, China, India, and South Africa – that have called into question the future of Western dominance in world markets and geopolitics (Nayyar, 2016;O ’Neill, 2013; Pieterse, 2018). Mainstream narratives of the economic and political ascent of these emerging powers tend to highlight the potential that this process holds for poverty reduction and progress towards higher levels of human development. Thus, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, 2013a) recently celebrated ‘the rise of the South’–a process spearheadedbyChina,India,Brazil,andSouthAfrica–asaprogressiveandhopefultransformation; and Russia has been widely perceived to be regaining significant economic and strategic ground in a post-communist world (Stuermer, 2009).

More critical voices have questioned the assumption that the rise of the BRICS countries points towards a tendency of developmental convergence in the world economy (see, for example, Kiely, 2007, 2008, 2015, 2016; Starrs, 2014). In part, this scepticism is grounded in the persistence of © 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group CONTACT Alf Gunvald Nilsen alf.g.nilsen@uia.no GLOBALIZATIONS https://doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2018.1479018 Northern power and domination in the global economy (see Hickel, 2017a, 2017b). However, an equally important reason for questioning celebratory accounts of the rise of the BRICS countries is the fact that the changing geography of economic and political power in the world-system is closely related to the emergence of a ‘new geography of global poverty’ (Kanbur & Sumner, 2012) in which more than 70% of the world’s poor now live in middle-income countries (see also Sumner, 2012). Despite impressive growth rates, the southern BRICS countries – Brazil, India, China, and South Africa – are home to more than 50% of the world’s poor (Ravallion, 2009). In Russia, poverty has been aggravated by the recent recession, with more than 13% of the population – that is, around 19.2millionpeople–currentlylivingbelowthepovertythreshold(AgenceFrance-Presse,2016).Persistent poverty is coupled with very deep and, in most cases, widening inequalities. South Africa is a case in point with a Gini coefficient of 0.631, but China and India have also seen rapidly escalating inequalities in recent years (see also Hung, 2016, Chapter 4; Jayadev, Motiram, & Vakulabharanam, 2011; Oxfam, 2017; UNDP, 2013b; World Bank, 2016). Indeed, recent research shows that Indian inequality is at its highest levels since the early 1920s, as 22% of all income currently accrues to the top 1% of earners (Chancel & Piketty, 2017). Brazil is an exception from this trend – its Gini coefficient declined from 0.594 in 2001 to 0.514 in 2014 (see data.worldbank.org) – but remains a deeply unequalcountry(WorldBank,2014).AndinRussia,thetopdecileofwealthholderscontrols77%of all household wealth, a level of inequality that is equal to that of the USA (Credit Suisse, 2017).

What these statistics ultimately testify to is the fact that the developmental trajectories of the BRICS countries are shot through with socio-economic fault lines. As a result, large numbers of people are relegated to the margins of current growth processes, where life is characterized by multiple and intersecting vulnerabilities rooted in a lack of access to secure and decent livelihoods, the absence of basic social protection and essential public services, and often also the exclusion from established political arenas. Moreover, these socio-economic fault lines have given rise to political convulsionsacross theBRICScountries,rangingfromsingle-issueproteststosustainedsocialmovements oriented towards structural transformation (see, for example, Braga, 2017; Chen, 2014; Clément, 2008; Gabowitsch, 2016; Lee, 2007; Menon, 2013; Naidoo, 2015; Ness, 2015; Nielsen & Nilsen, 2016;Saad-Filho&Morais,2014;Smith&West,2012;VonHoldtetal.,2011;VonSchnitzler,2016). This specialissue is dedicatedto developingan approachand aset of analysesthatcandecipher how the developmental trajectoriesof theBRICS countriesgenerate distinctforms and patternsof mobilizationand resistance and, conversely,howpopularstrugglesimpact on and shapethese trajectories. Indoingso,wehopetolaythefoundationforacriticalconceptualizationofthepoliticaleconomyof development in the BRICS countries that unearths those economic, social, and political contradictions that tend to disappear from view in mainstream narratives. To achieve this, the analyses that are offered in this special issue are centred on a triad of key concepts: neo-liberalization, precarity,andpopularstruggles.Beforeoutlininganddiscussingthese,webrieflyintroducethearticlescollected in this special issue.1

All of the authors examine popular mobilization and movements in relation to large historical processes and across avariety of case studies,sites orperiods in order to identify longer-term trends, shifts,andpossibilities.ChingKwanLeeexaminesthechangingformsofworkerprecarityandresistance across three eras of modern Chinese history – state socialism, high-growth market reform, and the current shift to slow growth and overcapacity. Russia followed a very different path of transition from communism, and Karine Clément explores changing popular responses, from the period of shock therapy neoliberalism in the 1990s to the period of growing patriotic nationalism under Putin. Gayatri Menon and Aparna Sundar trace changing forms of dispossession and resistance in India through three case studies, the first two in the period of state-led capitalist modernization 2 A. G. NILSEN AND K. VON HOLDT and the third in the period of neo-liberal globalization. Karl von Holdt and Prishani Naidoo frame their discussion of South African movements with an analysis of the African National Congress (ANC) domination of the movement landscape, and use case studies of four different moments of mobilization to examine continuities, shifts, and new possibilities. Ruy Braga and Sean Purdy draw out the changing dynamics of popular incorporation and demobilization, followed by both popular and middle-class right-wing mobilizations against the Lulista regime of accumulation, to explain the parliamentary coup against the Workers’ Party (PT) president in Brazil. Fabio Luis expands the analysis of neo-liberalization and social conflict in Brazil by examining their role in theexpansionofBraziliancompaniesintheLatinAmericanregion,accompaniedbysuper-exploitation of workers and the destruction of the environment. Gathering these articles in a special issue allows us to deepen our understanding of neo-liberalization, precarity, and popular struggle, both conceptually and in terms of the political possibilities they produce.


Alf Gunvald Nilsen is an associate professor at the Department of Global Development and Planning at the University of Agder and a Research Associate at the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Karl von Holdt is the Director of the Society, Work and Development Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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