Pambazuka News 673 (April 2014) carried nine articles on ‘sub-imperialist’ BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Three of the articles are by Patrick Bond and four by his present or past students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre (UKNC) for Civil Society of which Bond is the Director. This essay focuses on the paper by Bond – “BRICS and the tendency to sub-imperialism” – that is a little better grounded in theory than the others. I argue that Bond and his colleagues are inventing a category that simply does not exist. It is a distraction from real issues of concern to progressive forces everywhere. I write in the hope that others might feel inclined to join in this debate.
I will focus on the “theory” angle. There are several empirical observations made by Bond, but they make sense only if properly located in some theory. So I will ignore several obvious contradictions in his empirical observations. For example, he credits the BRICS for their ‘coherent strategy within the G20 to halt Washington’s threatened attack on Syria last September.’ But this was quickly negated by the following: ‘However, everywhere else, the BRICS failed on nearly every count.’
Bond’s main thesis is that BRICS are simply posturing to be anti-imperialist, but are themselves imperialist – or to use his words, that they have a ‘sub-imperialist or inter-imperialist positioning that belies anti-imperialist posturing’.
Three countries – China, Russia and South Africa– are particularly targeted for Bond’s critique. He talks of China’s ‘investment invasion of Africa’; ‘South African capital’s drive to accumulate’; and Russia’s ‘blunt takeover of Crimea’. I know that these and several such phrases have resonance in some parts of the popular media in Africa as also in the west. But leaving aside journalistic forays, it is necessary that we undertake a serious analysis of the theory behind this outburst of BRICS-bashing … and its political implications. Bond subjects the five – he calls them the ‘Fragile Five’ – to an indiscriminate collective clobbering. He quotes numerous ‘authorities’ – among them, Rosa Luxemburg, David Harvey and Sam Moyo. I have a fairly good knowledge of the writings of these, and I cannot but wonder if they would support Bond’s rather generous amplifications of these to bolster the case about BRICS acting as ‘sub-imperialists’ on the African continent.
ORIGIN AND MEANING OF THE TERM ‘SUB-IMPERIALISM’
I don’t really know the origin of the term ‘Sub-imperialism’. Patrick Bond traces it back to 1974. He says: ‘In his pioneering writing about Latin American geopolitics dating to the 1960s, Marini (1974) argued that 1970s-era Brazil was “the best current manifestation of sub-imperialism,” because of regional economic extraction, export of capital typically associated with imperialist politics, and internal corporate monopolization, including financialization.’
I carried out a quick literature survey, and I did not find many citations on the subject. In the Wikipedia, the most current citations refer mainly to Bond, and a recent (December 2013) paper by Michael Abbott – ‘Sub imperialism the U.S. and Brazil in Morales’ Bolivia’ – where Abbott describes President Evo Morales, as an ‘eager’ agent of Brazilian sub-imperialism through collaborating in exploiting the Amazonian forest resources. However, I discovered that the most erudite and theoretically sophisticated paper on the subject is by the Turkish scholar Elif Çagli. In a paper ‘On Sub-imperialism Regional Power Turkey’, (2009) she explores the term at great length using Marxist categories of analysis.
Çagli argues that under globalisation capitalism has moved to a new stage of imperialism, where the law of ‘uneven and combined development’ has created a three-tier hierarchy of states: between the imperialist countries at one end and the neo-colonies or ‘semi-colonies’ on the other are located the middle level ‘sub-imperialist’ countries. The BRICS form the core of this in-between category. But BRICS are not the only sub-imperialists. There are others – such as Turkey and Iran. She has an interesting and in-depth analysis of the contradictions between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ Turkish ‘bourgeoisie’ – the old under the army tutelage and the new based on Islamic circles. But despite the populist rhetoric of the ‘new’ bourgeoisie, they are even more of a ‘sub-imperialist’ in the region than the ‘old’ bourgeoisie, and they have embraced the neo-liberal economic agenda with greater zeal than the ‘old’ bourgeoisie.
SOME QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER DISCUSSION
There is an obvious need for further elaboration of the theory of ‘sub-imperialism’. In the UKNC discourse the analysis is entirely empiricist. It is important for Bond and his colleagues to undertake a deeper analysis – like Çagli – of what they might describe as ‘the South African bourgeoisie’. Who are they? What is the source of their capital? Who owns and controls this capital?
I have problems with Çagli’s theory too. Her analysis, as also Bond’s and Abbott’s, makes out every country that follows the neoliberal economic paradigm, and seeks market or an avenue for capital export to a neighbouring country a sub-imperialist. Thus, in their lexicon, Kenya becomes a sub-imperialist country in the East African region – it exports both goods and capital within the region. But then what about Uganda? It exports Chinese-made ‘sub-imperialist’ goods to Rwanda and the DRC, as well as acting as conduit for Chinese capital in the region. Does that make Uganda also ‘sub-imperialist’? Or is it now a ‘neo-colony’ of China?
In Abbott’s analysis President Evo Morales becomes an ‘agent’ of sub-imperialist Brazil, because he allows Bolivian resources to be exploited by the Brazilian oil giant, Petrobras. Applying the same logic, then, practically every head of state in Africa – from Haig Geingob in Namibia to John Mahama in Ghana – who have opened their countries to South Africa-based capitalist corporations, become, de facto, agents of sub-imperialist Jacob Zuma. But then who is left in Africa who is not either a sub-imperialist or an agent of sub-imperialists?
It is obvious that in the conceptual framework of the sub-imperialist theorists there is simply no room for regionalism in Africa or regional struggles against the imperialist countries of the US and Europe. I find this most disempowering. For the last almost thirty years some of us have been actively engaged in battling against Europe’s attempt to impose a totally iniquitous ‘Economic Partnership Agreements’ (EPAs) on our countries – among them, for example, that our countries stop all domestic production and export subsidies. The latest deadline for signing the EPA is October 2014. If we fail to sign it, Europe will impose sanctions on Africa. Civil society organisations – such as the Southern and Eastern African Trade and Information Institute (SEATINI) and the Human Rights organisations in the region – have been carrying out a sustained struggle against the EPAs and have so far succeeded in holding back their governments to signing the EPAs. Should they stop doing their campaigns?
The one concept missing from the sub-imperialist literature is that of the ‘national question’. This is not the place for an elaboration of this. All I can say is that it is not to be equated with national autarchy; it is about the people of a ‘nation’ to want to determine their own destiny. This has been the struggle in Africa since the 1884-85 Berlin conference that arbitrarily divided up the continent among imperial countries. In recent years, even some ‘nations’ in Europe – such as the Scottish and Catalonian peoples – are also seeking national self determination. Is this an unjust struggle?
In terms of their analysis, there is just one legitimate struggle – that of the popular masses to rise up against the governments in their countries, in their regions, their local agents, and the entire imperialist global system. Patrick Bond recommends that this should be done ‘as quickly as possible’. This is what he says: ‘The challenge for ‘BRICS -from-below’ critics is to link and internationalise as quickly as possible, because their interests and campaigning analyses, strategies, tactics and alliances have many points of overlap – with each other and with the world’s progressive forces. Only then will a genuine global anti-imperialist project become possible, i.e., when anti-sub-imperialists of the world also unite’. With this sweeping global strategy, Patrick would have us rise up against – among others – anti-US Evo Morales in Bolivia; popularly elected Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela; Zuma in South Africa; Mugabe in Zimbabwe; Museveni in Uganda; the sub-imperialist Chinese states of China and India; and of course, Vladimir Putin for his ‘blunt takeover of Crimea’. But would that not make us all de facto allies of the US and Europe in the ensuing post-Ukraine evolving scenario?
This raises larger geo-political issues, and the place of BRICS in the evolving scenario. For forty years in the 1950s to 1980s NATO was supplying arms to apartheid South Africa and to Portugal to deny self-determination to its African colonies. During those decades it was the USSR and China that had come to their aid. Of course, things have changed. China and Russia are not the same. But NATO remains more or less the same. NATO unleashed the nearly 15-years war against Afghanistan leaving a trail of destruction and mayhem – like in Iraq. Age-old religious dissensions and economic frustrations in Libya, Syria, Mali, the Central African Republic – among other countries – have been exploited by the west for its geo-political and economic interests. This is not to mention Iran which has been under US sanctions now for over three decades since the collapse of the US-backed Shah regime in 1979; and Palestine which has been ghettoed for 60 years ever since the founding of the state of Israel. Further afield, the US has increased its military presence in the Pacific and has warned China against interfering with the ‘freedom of navigation’ in the South China Sea. In South America, the US has been financing – like in Syria and the Ukraine – dissident elements in countries like Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. So the question: how does Africa position itself in this fast evolving geo-political situation?
These are difficult and complex issues. The sub-imperialist theorists are caught up in the exuberance of their conceptual creation. They need to provide a better theoretical foundation of their concept. In my view, they have invented a category that simply does not exist. It is a distraction from real issues of concern to progressive forces everywhere.