TENSÕES MUNDIAIS – WORLD TENSIONS / INTRODUCTION TO THE SPECIAL ISSUE, ‘CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES ON THE BRICS’

brics-event-in-fortaleza1The relative economic decline of the United States, Europe and Japan is often linked to the rise of an ‘emerging’ bloc comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. In 2013, meetings of BRICS leaders in Durban, South Africa, and St. Petersburg, Russia announced dissatisfaction with the Bretton Woods Institutions and the intention to create a BRICS New Development Bank, with capital of $50 billion, and launch a Contingent Reserve Arrangement with $100 billion. A Brazilian directs the World Trade Organization and tries to break persistent blockages between the US and EU that hinder the growth of global trade, and Chinese and Indian economists occupy a second tier of the bureaucracies in the World Bank and IMF. Meanwhile, several members of the BRICS have resisted demands by Western countries to impose stricter intellectual property controls and, in 2013, some leaders of the BRICS boldly challenged Washington on issues like the revelations of espionage, the asylum of the whistleblower Edward Snowden and Washington’s proposed bombing of Syria. Recently, in March 2014, the BRICS implicitly supported Russia in the conflict over Crimea, which had led the G7 to impose sanctions and expel Moscow (Putin had originally been scheduled to host the G8 meeting in Sochi).

by Ana Garcia and Patrick Bond

The relative economic decline of the United States, Europe and Japan is often linked to the rise of an ‘emerging’ bloc comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. In 2013, meetings of BRICS leaders in Durban, South Africa, and St. Petersburg, Russia announced dissatisfaction with the Bretton Woods Institutions and the intention to create a BRICS New Development Bank, with capital of $50 billion, and launch a Contingent Reserve Arrangement with $100 billion. A Brazilian directs the World Trade Organization and tries to break persistent blockages between the US and EU that hinder the growth of global trade, and Chinese and Indian economists occupy a second tier of the bureaucracies in the World Bank and IMF. Meanwhile, several members of the BRICS have resisted demands by Western countries to impose stricter intellectual property controls and, in 2013, some leaders of the BRICS boldly challenged Washington on issues like the revelations of espionage, the asylum of the whistleblower Edward Snowden and Washington’s proposed bombing of Syria. Recently, in March 2014, the BRICS implicitly supported Russia in the conflict over Crimea, which had led the G7 to impose sanctions and expel Moscow (Putin had originally been scheduled to host the G8 meeting in Sochi). The foreign ministers of the BRICS threatened to withdraw from the G20 summit in Australia if it were to become a G19 without Russia. These incidents suggest the possibility that at least two of the BRICS – China and Russia – can confidently take a stand against the Western powers. In May 2014, they signed a historic agreement to supply Russian gas to China using local currencies not the US$, seeking to partially reduce Russia’s dependence on sales to the European market.

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At the same time, the underlying BRICS project has much in common with the Western status quo regarding the stabilization of the financial world, generating additional capacities of ‘lender of last resort’ (e.g. providing a liquidity injection to the IMF worth $75 billion in 2012). BRICS still provides a sustained demand for the US dollar, despite monetary turbulence due to Federal Reserve policies. And BRICS countries promote an extractive, high-carbon economic model which threatens to amplify the catastrophic environmental and social destruction of advanced capitalism. The role of the BRICS in the de facto derailing of the Kyoto Protocol to limit climate change is revealing: Russia endorsed the Treaty in 2005 but withdrew in 2012, while in 2009 the other BRICS leaders joined Barack Obama to promote the Copenhagen Accord in behind-the-scenes negotiations, rejecting a mandatory limit on emissions. The surveillance of citizens seems as severe in the BRICS countries as in the Anglophone West, in a style reminiscent of George Orwell’s ‘1984’. The criminalization of social movements and the oppression of dissidents are even worse. The economic and political domination by their less-developed neighbours is a growing concern, leading critics to postulate the incorporation of sub-imperialist BRICS into world capitalism, as Ruy Mauro Marini wrote regarding the position of Brazil 40 years ago.

However, the extreme contradictions that characterize all the BRICS have created incisive forms of social resistance, including some of the largest protests in the world. Mega-projects are manifestations of the pro-corporate economic growth model, resulting in serious environmental destruction in these countries. Fortaleza hosts the BRICS Summit in July 2014, two days after the World Cup. This city was one target of protests against excessive government spending, against FIFA’s non-payment of taxes and overturning of Brazilian legislation, and against social inequalities and the lack of quality public services. Police crackdowns across Brazil entailed grave violations of human rights.

Other profound challenges come from Russia, not only as a result of the expansion to Ukraine, but also the repression of protests. Civil society has responded to this authoritarianism with a democracy movement in late 2011, a freedom of expression struggle involving a rock band in 2012, the movement for gay rights in 2013, and anti-war protests in March and May 2014. In India, activists have shaken the power structure by mobilising against corruption in 2011/12 and against a rape and murder in late 2012, and then surprised society in the Delhi municipal elections of 2013 by voting in an anti-establishment political party of the left. In China, activists have increased the number of protests over pollution, for example in April 2014, when protests arose against a paraxylene factory in Guandong. Just as important are the struggles of workers, such as recent strikes against Nike and Adidas. In South Africa, the so-called ‘resource curse’ (the abundance of minerals whose exploitation could have serious social and environmental impacts) helps explain what may be one of the highest rates of protest worldwide. Certainly, the labour movement deserves the rating given by the World Economic Forum as the most militant working class the world over the past two years. But many protests in South Africa, including those on approximately 1880 occasions last year which turned violent (according to the Minister of Police), still fail to connect with each other and to establish a democratic movement (although the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa are trying to change this through their ‘United Front’ initiative).

In all these cases, activists and protesters depart from the rhetoric of the BRICS governments, who promise a ‘great future’ for their countries by following the current trajectory, especially in alliance with one another. There is not a consistent approach between activists; the progressive forces in each country operate still unaware of possible concrete links with other movements in the other BRICS countries, and in the hinterlands. The central question that arises now is to what extent the social struggles in each of the BRICS countries might turn into links of solidarity between peoples on the basis of reversing the path of the elites and creating paths for another kind of development.

This connection between the struggles and collective experiences of resistance and construction of alternatives is what we call ‘Brics from below’. If we look at the various stances taken towards BRICS using a class analysis, we can discern some rough ideological positions towards this bloc of countries. The positions can be distingued as ‘Brics from above’ (the position of government and corporate bodies), ‘Brics from the middle’ (the position of some academics, thinktanks and some NGOs), ‘Brics from below’ (grassroots social movements that can create common bonds of struggle and transnational solidarity), and, finally, those looking at BRICS from a pro-Western corporate perspective. The latter are adherents to the old capitalist order based on US hegemony, and fear the rise of the BRICS. We describe these positions, with three nuanced perspectives in the main categories, in the box below, based on the experiences in South Africa:

TEN IDEOLOGICAL STANDPOINTS IN RELATION TO THE BRICS

  1. Brics-from-above – heads of state, corporates and elite allies

o  1.1 BRICS as anti-imperialist: foreign ministry rhetoric – ‘Talk Left, Walk Right’ – based upon national-liberation traditions, with some concrete actions, such as opposition to Intellectual Property applied to medicines, especially anti-retrovirals,

o  1.2 BRICS as sub-imperialist: relegitimisation of ‘globalisation,’ lubricating neoliberalism in – and exploiting – BRICS hinterlands, intensifying structural exploitation of poor/workers/women/nature on behalf of global/local capital, ensuring maximum greenhouse gas emissions alongside BASIC/US no matter the local/continental/global consequences, and even sometimes playing a ‘deputy sheriff’ role to world hegemons

o  1.3 BRICS as inter-imperialist: potential new internet delinked from the US; promotion of Putin v Obama in September 2013 at G20; and backing Russia in Crimea/Ukraine conflict

 2. Brics-from-the-middle – Academic Forum, intellectuals, trade unions, NGOs

o  2.1 pro-BRICS advocates: most of Academic Forum, most establishment ‘think tanks’, and others (including leftists) with hopes BRICS can more effectively challenge global injustices

o  2.2 wait-and-see about BRICS: most NGOs and their funders – as well as most ‘Third Worldist’ intellectuals – who wish for BRICS to become ‘anti-impi’ at UN, Bretton Woods Institutions and with New Development Bank and Contingent Reserve Arrangement, etc

o  2.3 critics of BRICS: those associated with brics-from-below networks who consider BRICS to be ‘sub-impis’ and sometimes also ‘inter-impis’

 3. Brics-from-below – grassroots activists whose visions run local to global

o  3.1 localist: stuck within local or sectoral silos, including myriad momentary ‘popcorn protests’ – even some against BRICS corporations or projects – that are insurgent, unstrategic, at constant risk of becoming xenophobic, and prone to populist demagoguery

o  3.2 nationally-bound: most civil society activists who are vaguely aware of BRICS and are hostile to it, yet they are so bound up in national and sectoral battles – most of which counteract BRICS’ agenda – that they fail to link up even in areas that would serve their interests

o  3.3 solidaristic-internationalist: ‘global justice movement’ allies aspiring for joint campaigning for human and ecological rights against common BRICS enemies such as Vale, China Development Bank, DBSA, Transnet/mega-shipping, fossil fuel corporations and other polluters, coming BRICS Development Bank – or providing solidarity to allies across the BRICS when they are repressed

 4. pro-West business – most organic intellectuals of business connected to Old Money, multinational-corporate branch plants, northern-centric institutions and political parties, and their ilk, all increasingly worried that BRICS may act as a coherent anti-Western bloc some day

From this attempt to organise ideological positioning, it is possible to identify a variety of analyses of this group of countries. Recall that the first appearance of the acronym BRIC was in 2001, offered by Jim O’Neil of Goldman Sachs to identify promising markets for its financial investors. There were those who discredited the bloc as something incoherent that would not last, arguing that these countries have nothing in common with each other. Others have considered these countries as a possible threat to US hegemony, aspiring to have more power and participation in the international order, with demands to the traditional powers to adjust rules and standards accordingly. Others have celebrated the rise of the BRICS as the democratization of the world order, without which it will be impossible to find solutions to the global financial crisis which began in the US.

 Because of the BRICS’ importance, funding agencies, especially in core countries, began to allocate resources to projects and academic papers on the topic, and the BRICS also supported alliances of generally pro-government academics and thinktanks. The collection of texts gathered in this special issue of World Tensions aims to fill a gap in studies, events and documents dealing with BRICS: critical analysis of the rise of these economies within the framework of a global capitalism that is increasingly predatory, exclusionary and unequal, no more so than in the BRICS themselves. We take up the challenge of bringing together a set of articles from different approaches, helping to reflect upon the rise of a ‘Global South (and East),’ which is sometimes cooperative and sometimes antagonistic to the traditional powers (US, Europe and Japan). Most importantly, BRICS’ rise occurs in the context of the expansion and deepening of capitalism in the 21st century, and also in the midst of world capitalism’s worst crisis since the 1930s. The point of critical analysis is to thereby strengthen networks of resistance and help build a transnational solidarity towards a ‘Brics from below’.

Thus, two goals were established for this special edition. The first is to bring together analyses that prompt debate between social movements, organised labour and other activists in the struggle for social justice and for alternatives to the current international capitalist order. BRICS is a new area of concern for many of the anti-neoliberal social movements. The second goal is to generate ​​critical academic debate involving contemporary themes and theoretical discussions, such as whether BRICS represent cases of sub-imperialism, neo-developmentalism and extraction. We seek contributions from all five BRICS countries, as well as the hinterland neighbouring countries, and we will initially present our findings through this journal at the summit of the BRICS in Fortaleza, Brazil.

These objectives have been largely achieved. A first set of articles discusses the categories of imperialism, sub-imperialism and capital-imperialism. Mathias Luce revisits the Ruy Mauro Marini formulations within the Marxist theory of dependence. The author develops a comprehensive theory of sub-imperialism as the ‘highest stage of dependent capitalism.’ This results in a new hierarchy in the world system, with intermediate links in the imperialist chain, a position held especially by Brazil, South Africa and India. According Luce, China, and Russia cannot be characterised similarly. Virgínia Fontes is already working with a new category, the imperialism of capital, in order to understand the transformations of contemporary capitalism and its new economic, political and social contradictions. For Fontes, the dominance exercised by the core countries must be understood not as something external, but internalized in other countries, with BRICS countries revealing a subordinate membership within capital-imperialist expansion. Leo Panitch, in turn, supports the thesis of an informal US empire when analysing the position of BRICS countries, particularly China. According to Panitch, Washington’s informal empire was responsible for the extension and reproduction of capitalism on a global scale, with strong support from foreign capitalist classes. Thus, the integration of large states of the South in global capitalism both intensified and complicated the imperial responsibilities of the United States. The most important conflicts in the world today occur not between rival imperial states, he argues, but between fractions of the capitalist class, within states. Finally, Pedro Henrique Campos considers the evolution of the internationalization of the Brazilian construction conglomerate. For him, the thesis of the Brazilian sub-imperialism is not sufficient to explain this sector’s internationalization, since it is not the narrowness of the market that explains the performance of companies abroad, but the experience and high capacity of capital developed in Brazil, before and especially during the civil-military dictatorship. This is due to the state’s broad support and encouragement, and it occurs mainly in priority regions for Brazilian foreign policy, such as South America and Africa.

This leads us to a second set of articles on corporate and political expansion of BRICS in Africa. Two papers are by Brazilian researchers. Maurice Gurjão and Monica Martins discuss Brazilian foreign policy towards Africa during the Lula government in its duality: on the one hand, the cooperative face materialized in initiatives such as the African-Brazilian Lusophone University of International Integration (Unilab) and transfer programs knowledge; another is the dominant face, revealed by Brazil’s interest in expanding political leadership and the predation of Brazilian companies in African countries. Ana Garcia and Karina Kato explore Brazilian insertions in Angola and Mozambique through BNDES financing, direct investment from private and public companies, and the policies of ‘development cooperation’. The authors emphasize three themes: the identification of priority sectors and their institutional arrangements; the unique role of the state in each of these countries and the ambiguous relationship and conflict with Brazilian actors and projects; and new forms of ‘South-South debt’ generated from these transactions, with consequences for the economies of African countries. From a Southern African perspective, Baruti Amisi, Bobby Peek and Farai Maguwu expound on the role of the BRICS in Africa, especially Mozambique and Zimbabwe, mainly through investment opportunities in the extractive sector and large infrastructure projects, with adverse impacts on societies and the environment. According to the authors, the BRICS New Development Bank will aim to give coherence to such investment imperatives. The ‘resource curse’ is evident in that the BRICS elites, both political leaders and corporations, are allies in the local ruling classes.

A third group of articles deals with the conflicting operations of companies in the extractive sector – oil, gas and mining – originating in the BRICS. Judith Marshall offers a comprehensive analysis of the overall performance of the Brazilian mining company Vale and its impacts on workers and communities in Canada, Mozambique and Brazil itself. According to the author, the behaviour of Vale exemplifies the worst tendencies of large mining companies all over the world, and contributes to global tensions by increasing the gap between rich and poor, along with environmental degradation. Igor Fuser assesses the prevailing interpretations in Brazil regarding the dispute between Petrobras and the Bolivian government, triggered by the nationalization of gas by the government of Evo Morales, newly elected in 2006. There is a mythical interpretation of the Brazilian state, as having an attitude of ‘generosity’ in external relations at the regional level. Finally, Omar Bonilla provides Ecuadorian perspective on the geopolitics of oil in relation to Chinese oil companies, which have adapted quickly to policy changes in the Andean region. However, little has been done to comply with national and international human rights standards. In Ecuador, Chinese companies have contributed significantly to the expansion of extractive frontier, mainly in Yasuní National Park, showing little interest in improving the working conditions and responsibility to workers and former workers.

Reliance on fossil energy resources and the extractive industry economy was also the focus of analysis by two important international Marxist scholars. Elmar Altvater points to the limits of nature and eco-systems in the gradual liberalization of the market. According to the author, the world is now divided into strong nation-states that are using geo-engineering schemes, information policies and climate policy. Trade blocs are increasingly transformed into markets to suit the needs of the largest corporations, and these blocs function as protectorates, including more or less informal alliances such as the BRICS. But the neo-extractivist development strategy has serious limitations, especially in relation to the many small countries whose influence in the contemporary world is small. Next, James Petras offers a strong criticism of successive Brazilian governments, from the civil-military dictatorship, to the neoliberal period of Cardoso, and even to the supposedly progressive Workers Party governments of Lula and Rousseff. Petras shows how Brazil has become a major exporter of extractive industry products, prompted by the massive penetration of imperial multinational companies and the financial flows of foreign banks. Thus, there was a ‘great reversal’: a dynamic country with a nationalist industrialization project has become a nation vulnerable to imperialism, dependent upon agro-mineral extraction momentum, thus generating new political and class struggles.

Two important themes point to possible links between social movements of the BRICS. The first is related to the tendency of the BRICS countries to host mega-events such as the Olympic Games and soccer World Cup. Einar Braathen, Celina Sørbøe and Gilmar Mascarenhas discuss the allocation of resources for high mega-events in countries whose institutional capacity to protect human rights and the environment is still fragile. In the context of neoliberal global competition among countries, the authors show how what they term ‘cities of exception’ are sold as ‘global cities’. Exemplified in Rio de Janeiro, these cities seek to build coalitions between government and companies seeking ‘opportunities for urban entrepreneurialism’. The FIFA 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics are creating a social backlash and the social sensibility that even the poorest people have a ‘right to the city​​’.

Another current issue that can link dissident voices across borders is the creation of the BRICS New Development Bank. In a brief but assertive analysis, Carlos Tautz criticises undemocratic aspects of the construction of this new financial institution of the ‘South’. The new bank has been the subject of debate and intervention by only a small number of civil society organizations and academics. According to the author, this condition increases the gap between society and substantive decisions that shape the pattern of accumulation in Brazil and other countries where the bank comes to acting. At the same time, the bank (along with the Contingent Reserve Arrangement) institutionally consolidates the BRICS grouping itself, increasing the complexity of the relationships between the five countries. The creation of the BRICS Bank, and its priority to build ‘infrastructure for sustainable development’ in Africa (following a decision made in Durban), is part of the project also found in the large multilateral funding agencies. Financiers are opening another international round of credit for large projects in economic infrastructure. In 2013, the World Bank created the Global Infrastructure Facility (GIF). It is on this terrain that the BRICS Bank will want to move, i.e., in complete harmony with the current international architecture of development finance and without any room for anti-systemic movement. Tautz points to the need for international civil society to ensure that funding criteria include consideration of a wide range of rights. This is a unique opportunity, as important as what emerged at the time of the creation of the IMF or World Bank, or even the BNDES in Brazil.

Beyond economic issues, this special edition of World Tensions also considers a controversial topic, namely the prospects of military cooperation between the BRICS. Luiz Goldoni and Domingos Neto provide important data about how military ordnance and development projects are designed together. These are subjects that are vital, yet still little known and rarely discussed in social movements and by critical academics. The authors contend that, in conjunction with long-standing rivalries, such initiatives may well lead to the redrawing of the geopolitical map, especially in Eurasia. The BRICS’ military success, even if partial, would help end the military hegemony exercised by the industrialized Western powers, but potentially at the expense of new interimperial rivalry.

This special edition of World Tensions on the BRICS has the greatest weight of contributions from Brazil and South Africa, partly as a result of the recent summits in these countries. Still, we are fortunate to have an excellent article by the novelist Arundhati Roy, who sees Indian capitalism as a ‘ghost story’. The privatization of everything means that corruption is the new ‘conventional wisdom’ for the accumulation of capital. This requires a war waged by the ruling class against the forces of resistance, including a Maoist army which controls much of central India. Across India, mega-projects such as large dams and industrial parks, highways and urban sprawl are creating a ‘good investment climate’, but the forced removal of millions of people will not be easily achieved. Corporations benefit, but even their most sophisticated philanthropy, or their alliances with NGOs, cannot eradicate popular opposition. With capitalism in deep crisis and the very survival of the planet at stake, the old strategies of co-optation and war will not work.

Finally, a group of short papers reveal different positions on the BRICS. These contributions include analyses of Immanuel Wallerstein, William Robinson, Susanne Soedenberg, Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros, and Achin Vanaik. Here, a Russian contribution comes from a researcher of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow, Anna Ochkina. She points to the contradictory situation in the BRICS, in which the growth of counter-hegemonic economic and cultural potential (at least in the case of Russia and China) is not accompanied by the development of democratic political traditions or mass involvement of people in political life through self-organization. As a result, in these countries, neoliberalism – even destroying the accumulated economic and cultural potential – produces high levels of social tension, but does not generate a conscious social resistance. The elites of the BRICS co-exist comfortably within the system and are not interested in risking this situation, even when they have global political ambitions. According to Ochkina, this loyalty to global economic institutions is seen as a guarantee of a country’s international status, which is why BRICS remain a ‘ghost’ instead of a true partnership. Thus, we hope to contribute to the debate between social movements and critical scholars, both in and outside Brazil.

We thank greatly to all authors who have contributed to this special issue of World Tensions, considerably raising the quality of the discussions about the BRICS. We are also grateful to Camilla Costa, from the Centre for Nationalities, research network headquartered at the State University of Ceará, and Boaventure Monjane, from the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, whose work enabled the Portuguese translation of this publication. Our final thanks to the Ford Foundation which, through the ‘Brics from below’ project at the Centre for Civil Society, supported much of this work.

Ana Garcia and Patrick Bond

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