East-West/North-South – or Imperial-Subimperial? The BRICS, Global Governance and Capital Accumulation
Patrick Bond (Human Geography, September 2018)

Two leading critics of imperialism — John Smith and David Harvey — have engaged in a bitter dispute over how to interpret geographically-shifting processes of super-exploitation and power. Missing, though, is consideration of ‘subimperialism,’ a category drawn from Ruy Mauro Marini’s 1960s-70s dependency theory, with its focus on Brazil’s relationship with the West: a fusion of imperial and semi-peripheral agendas of power and accumulation with internal processes of super-exploitation. The risk is that by splitting hairs on geographically-generalized categories, Smith and Harvey obscure crucial features of their joint wrath, which is the unjust accumulation processes and geopolitics that enrich the wealthy and despoil the world environment.

The concept of subimperialism can resolve some of the Smith-Harvey disputes, but only if read through Marini and Harvey in a more generous way than does Smith. One of the best examples of the phenomenon is the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) bloc, which for a decade from 2009-18 has increasingly asserted an ‘alternative’ strategy to key features of Western imperialism, while in reality fitting tightly within it. This fit works through amplified neoliberal multilateralism serving both the BRICS and the West, the regional displacement of overaccumulated capital, financialization, and persistent super-exploitative social relations: the spatio-temporal fixes and accumulation by dispossession that amplify global crisis tendencies.

A revival of debates about imperialism is underway, partly at the Review of African Political Economy website (http://roape.net) where in early 2018 John Smith forcefully challenged David Harvey’s accumulation-based perspective. But a set of false geographical dichotomies — of an East-West or North-South character — soon emerged there, as a result of the way that imperial power is interrogated: without sufficient attention to the shift from globalization to deglobalization. In the course of this process, powerful semi-peripheral processes of accumulation and disaccumulation appear, as the limits of capitalism are being reached, which deserve the name ‘subimperial.’ This article sets out the underlying aspects of both the bottom-up analysis of super-exploitation favoured by Smith and the top-down spatial flows of capital favoured by Harvey, suggesting instead that the subimperial concept — as formulated in the work of the Brazilian Ruy Mauro Marini — can integrate both necessary processes.

To begin with super-exploitation, Smith’s book Imperialism in the 21st Century — winner of Monthly Review’s 2017 Paul Sweezy Award — has as its foundation this formula:

the imperialist division of the world into oppressed and oppressor nations has shaped the global working class, central to which is the violent suppression of international labor mobility. Just as the infamous pass-laws epitomized apartheid in South Africa, so do immigration controls form the lynch-pin of an apartheid-like global economic system that systematically denies citizenship and basic human rights to the workers of the South and which, as in apartheid-era South Africa, is a necessary condition for their super-exploitation (Smith 2016:104).

This is a start. But a rounded Marxist-feminist-ecological-race-conscious critique of imperialism needs a stronger foundation. Smith’s problems begin with the South Africa metaphor and extend to the unconvincing binary of oppressed and oppressor nations, whose main shortcoming is that it underplays national ruling classes aspiring to shift from the former to the latter. The analysis also fails to incorporate aspects of ‘deglobalization’ now increasingly apparent in this conjuncture (even before the Trump trade war fully breaks out and recent financial market mini-crashes build up to another generalized meltdown). Neglect of multilateral power relations and geopolitical bloc formation also characterizes the debate Smith (2016, 2017, 2018a, 2018b) strikes up with Harvey (2018). The main missing links in contributions from both Smith and Harvey relate to processes of subimperial accumulation and class struggle, especially at a time that so-called global governance (multilateralism) has successfully assimilated the potential challenge by the main bloc of semi-peripheral countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (the BRICS). To be sure, this category was at least briefly deployed by Harvey (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. What might be called ‘subimperialisms’ arose … Each developing centre of capital accumulation sought out systematic spatio-temporal fixes for its own surplus capital by 3Volume 11, Number 2 2018 defining territorial spheres of influence (Harvey 2003:185-86).

And in his debate with the Patnaiks (2016:169) on imperialism, Harvey also refers in passing to subimperialism (but only in relation to productive circuitry outsourcing to Taiwan and South Korea). This is perhaps the most vital component: the displacement of overaccumulated capital into geographically-dispersed sites, especially the BRICS. For there it is apparent that the re-deployment of this capital ultimately finds returns in even more super-exploitative sites of surplus extraction, including BRICS hinterlands, especially the extractive industries of Africa. Hence with the rise of the BRICS since 2009, new strategies for (generally more extreme) global management of these processes have also emerged in imperialism’s multilateral system — the Bretton Woods Institutions, World Trade Organization and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change which successfully assimilated the BRICS — even if downplayed by Smith and Harvey in this recent debate.

In short, the power structures of global neoliberalism seamlessly drew in the BRICS over the past decade, in relation to world finance, during the 2010-15 International Monetary Fund vote restructuring; trade, at the World Trade Organization in 2015; and climate policies, at the United Nations from 2009-15 (Bond and Garcia 2015; Bond 2016; Luce 2015). The multilateral ‘reforms’ promoted by subimperial powers extend their own corporations’ accumulation and displace their own class, social and ecological backlashes — again albeit with profound contradictions. And there are few places where these kinds of processes are more obvious than in South Africa.


Patrick Bond teaches political economy at the University of the Witwatersrand School of Governance in Johannesburg.

Links Search