East-West/North-South – or Imperial-Subimperial? The BRICS, Global Governance and Capital Accumulation
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.