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Subimperial BRICS enter the Bolsonaro-Putin-Modi-Xi-Ramaphosa Era
by Patrick Bond
13 March 2020


The concept of subimperialism has been explained by Ruy Mauro Marini and David Harvey using characteristics ranging across class structure, geopolitics and the displacement of overaccumulated capital, to which we add a vital component: select middle-income countries’ contributions to neoliberal global governance. 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 rhetorically 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, financialisation, and persistent super-exploitative social relations. In short, in spite of what some term the ‘schizophrenic’ character of subimperialism, the BRICS all generally promote extreme spatio-temporal fixes and the predatory condition known as accumulation-by-dispossession. But these amplify the world’s ‘centrifugal’ capitalist crisis tendencies, instead of providing a coherent bloc and a purported alternative to Western power. While Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin remain Washington’s most durable potential competitors, the other BRICS are splintering in unpredictable ways. Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist defeat of the Congress Movement in 2014, Cyril Ramaphosa’s replacement of Jacob Zuma in 2018 and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s ascension in 2019 together confirm the rightward political drift. The ‘anti-imperialist’ potential of the BRICS, if it ever existed, is exhausted, although fierce debate continues over the merits of subimperial theory. All told, a much more brutal period appears on the horizon, in social, political, economic and ecological respects – unless ‘brics from below’ forces can make more coherent their resistance.

1. Introduction: BRICS diverge upon shifting subimperial sands

Renewed political tensions within the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) network of countries were no better reflected than when in March 2019, Brazilian foreign minister Ernesto Araújo announced he would use the bloc – specifically Moscow and Beijing – to help Donald Trump rid neighbouring Venezuela of its president, Nicolás Maduro. As Araújo told the Wall Street Journal, “Brazil has a unique responsibility in foreign affairs. It is a matter of common sense. Nobody wants an ally like Maduro. These countries [Russia and China] have a reputation to preserve” (Trevisani and Pearson 2019). This strategy had, naturally, no hope for success, but it was not surprising, for the reactionary Jair Bolsonaro – who assumed power in Brazil on January 1 – had chosen Araújo precisely for such aggressive reasons, to become what Jacobin magazine recognised as “the worst diplomat in the world” (Pagliarini 2019). [1]

At the same time, amidst durable conflicts between the BRICS and Western capitals, pro-Russia analyst Dragoljub Bosnić (2019) identified other wedge issues that could potentially fracture the BRICS bloc:

  • China is the largest holder of American debt and also has the largest US dollar foreign reserves in the world. And of course, the US is the largest and the most important market for Chinese products. China holds a great deal of power over the US, but the reverse is also true. Moscow definitely has its deal of frustrations because of this and thus can’t officiate an open anti-Western alliance with China… We have Russia and Iran, which are in a relatively open confrontation with the West, China which has a passive, crawling confrontation with the West and Western-allied countries, but in the same time, these countries and their markets are the reason for China’s unsurpassed economic boom. And then, we have India, which sees China as a relatively hostile neighbour, and sees Pakistan as a primary adversary. Pakistan has an alliance with China, but is also an unwilling ally of the US (and also one of the largest recipients of the US foreign military aid program), and also has bad relations with Iran, which is a natural ally for India, but India has also been experiencing political advances on the part of the US, which is trying to create a functioning alliance in order to ‘contain’ China, but China also has a certain level of cooperation with Iran.

Even before Bolsonaro came to power, there were signs of extreme internecine competition than intra-BRICS collaboration at certain times and in places of high stakes. This occurred not just in economic crisis sectors such as steel, due to Chinese overaccumulation of capital, as discussed below. Tensions exploded on the China-India-Bhutan border when in mid-2017 fisticuffs broke out between troops, nearly scuttling the Xiamen summit a few weeks later. More durably, the conflict over Pakistan is specifically over whether Kashmir – claimed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as his country’s territory (not yet returned) – will host Beijing’s most crucial Belt and Road Initiative transport and pipeline corridor: from the Arabian Sea’s Gwadar port to Western China. The BRICS’ assimilation into global governance has not eased these internal tensions, and when the Bretton Woods Institutions were not sufficiently malleable to support the desired scope of Belt and Road financing, Beijing developed its own Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, a source of yet more conflict. Modi’s boycott of the 2017 Belt and Road Conference clarifies how far and deep the ripples of discordant geopolitics continue to be felt.

Is there anything comprehensible in this set of divisions, to which conflicts over Syria and Palestine, Poland and Ukraine, Yemen and the Horn of Africa, and the South China Sea would likewise fracture the world? The late Zimbabwean rural scholar Sam Moyo and Brazil-based political economist Paris Yeros (2011, 19) had long before anticipated the BRICS’ internecine political chaos, given their very diverse material realities; for example, “The degree of participation in the Western military project is also different from one case to the next although, one might say, there is a ‘schizophrenia’ to all this, typical of ‘subimperialism’.” For Bob Jessop (2018), the BRICS are too differentiated, economically, to establish unity: “the distinctive crisis tendencies of their respective varieties of capitalism and the constraints associated with their differential insertion into the variegated world market has meant that only China has fulfilled the expectations hyped in the BRICS.”

In contrast, writing in the Financial Times, Chinese academics Wang Wen and Guan Zhaoyu (2017) dispute the “myth of BRICS schizophrenia” that follows from their dispersed and often divergent interests:

  • BRICS countries share the common values of reform and development. Reform is meant to improve global economic governance; to reform the unfair, unreasonable, and imperfect aspects of the old governance systems. Development is to promote developing countries in the global agenda, and establish a sustainable path so that economic globalisation can evolve in a more balanced way.

This more ‘balanced way’ resembled, rhetorically, what in 2015 at the BRICS Ufa Summit, Xi Jinping (2015) reflected as “the centripetal force of BRICS nations,” permitting the five members to “tap their respective advantages and potentials and carry out cooperation in innovation and production capacity.” In fact, upon closer examination, the BRICS were part of a centrifugal process: worsening disruptions based on deep-rooted, underlying economic contradictions (Bond 2017, Garcia and Bond 2018, Bond 2018b), in a context in which the world often appeared ‘upside down’ (Panitch and Albo 2018), spinning out of control, sometimes falling apart at the seams. Therefore, it is best to consider the Moyo-Yeros description of the BRICS’ political allegiances not metaphorically (in terms of mental health), but instead methodologically: as a challenge for analytical generalisation. If so, it soon becomes clear that it is impossible to predict what kind of reaction these middle-income countries will exhibit at any given opportunity.

Nevertheless, in some crucial respects, there are theoretical necessities behind how the BRICS will play out their diverse roles, at a time of brewing economic-ecological crises, as noted below. The surface-level geopolitical rivalries and shifting alliances noted above suggest not only ‘logics of capital’ and of state territorial expansion that follow universal ‘laws of motion’ with respect to global uneven and combined development – but also the opposite: contingencies associated with leadership choices and political foibles that often reflect the host country’s prerogative of setting the agenda at each annual meeting. (One example was on display at the 2016 Goa summit: Modi’s US-style fetish with the critique of terrorism, as an ultimately futile way to divide Pakistan from China and Russia. [2])

So we may superficially describe the conjuncture based on the contingencies of the moment, but if instead we want to theorise these political-economic processes, we need a more powerful conceptual apparatus that cuts across politics, economics, ecology and the internal social conditions of very different places. Such a theory should also explain how the incorporation of BRICS within the imperial project displaces underlying economic tensions –the centrifugal processes of capitalist crisis formation – into the realms of geopolitical and ‘global governance’ rivalries. (Recall the hostility of Barack Obama’s regime to both the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Belt and Road Initiative, as well as Chinese capital’s penetration into Africa.) Instead of muting these rivalries, the assimilation of BRICS displaces them onto terrains that are more liable to disintegrate; at the time of writing, both the world’s trade and climate policy-making bodies are subject to collapse, mainly due to Trump’s sabotage, defunding and ultimately withdrawal.

That conceptual apparatus is the theory of ‘subimperialism.’ But it is controversial, so after clarifying its meaning, we then turn to recent leftist and Third Worldist critiques of this idea, and offer rebuttals. Then we move to interrogate one particularly vivid illustration in the contemporary period: malgovernance of global finance, in which the BRICS are increasingly implicated. We conclude by considering the geopolitical fracturing, economic chaos and ecological catastrophe which in turn, as the analysis of subimperialism confirms, are the logical results of the BRICS’ amplification of global crisis tendencies. Even as they appear to have offered an illusory ‘fix’ and maintain rhetorical innocence in the crimes of Western imperialism.

2. A conceptual apparatus for centrifugal, subimperial times

The term subimperialism was first coined by Brazilian political economist Ruy Mauro Marini (1932-97), and will be referred to periodically, below, where it is useful to indicate overlapping interests of Western and BRICS powers, or ways that BRICS-based firms (including state-owned capital) penetrate their societies and hinterlands in a manner comparable to Western multinational corporations. The main way this threatens world stability is because of China’s contribution to capital overaccumulation, a process which is the most rigorous basis for the Marxist theory of economic crisis (Harvey 1999). The BRICS not only seek to shore up global economic governance under such conditions, but they also play a role as ‘deputy sheriffs’ in their respective hinterlands, since the political-economic domination of regions surrounding each of the BRICS are important to enhancing their power. [3]

As a bloc, BRICS issues periodic communiques and occasionally acts in concert, and as a result, regularly resorts to using anti-imperial rhetoric. One example was the successful lobbying by BRICS foreign ministers against the proposed expulsion of Russia from the 2014 G20 Brisbane summit following sanctions imposed on Moscow by the West after the March 2014 transfer of power in Crimea. In another example, at the St Petersburg G20 summit in 2013, Washington’s plan to bomb the Syrian leadership (following reported a nerve gas attack on dissidents) was vetoed by not only Russian leader Vladimir Putin but also South African president Jacob Zuma.

At that point, BRICS was considered a coherent ‘bloc’ in the making, and indeed during its first decade, from 2009-18, it increasingly asserted an ‘alternative’ strategy against the most notable features of the Western-dominated power structure. These included, as discussed below, multilateral political conflicts over finance, trade, climate policy and even soccer (through a controversial, corruption-riddled Swiss agency, FIFA, which granted World Cup hosting rights to three BRICS countries in 2010-18). Much of the rhetoric restates BRICS opposition to “unfair, unreasonable, and imperfect aspects of the old governance systems” (Wen and Zhaoyu 2017). But in reality, the BRICS had fit fairly tightly within imperialism during the pre-Trump era. This fit worked through an amplification of neoliberal multilateralism by the likes of Obama in the US, Angela Merkel in Germany and most of the global-scale institutions’ leadership.

Global financial, trade and climate policies are, thanks to the Western-BRICS alliance, disastrous for the world’s poor people and for planetary survival. The policies reflected how capitalist crisis tendencies are amplified through neoliberal multilateralism, as corporations utilise the global governance regime to aid in displacing overaccumulated capital, financialisation, natural resource extraction, and persistent super-exploitative social relations. The BRICS had emerged immediately after the 2008-09 world financial meltdown, where China’s turn to (high-carbon) infrastructure investments – such as ghost cities and massive highway expansion (along with lower-carbon high-speed trains, to be sure) – allowed world capitalism to continue stumbling forward, in classical Keynesian mode, displacing but not resolving the crisis tendencies. Although in 2014-15, the overaccumulation crisis discussed below had become evident, the next effort by Beijing along these lines – the Belt and Road Initiative – was similarly oriented to infrastructure construction, but now much further afield, stretching even to Africa’s east coast.

How are we to explain this, in theoretical terms? Earlier, in his 2003 The New Imperialism, Marxist geographer David Harvey (2003: 185-86) observed, “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 defining territorial spheres of influence.” The existence of surplus capital caused falling rates of profit in the productive sectors of the BRICS as well as Western powers. What Harvey (2003) terms spatio-temporal fixes and ‘accumulation by dispossession’ then help to displace the surpluses elsewhere, and thus restore profits. But instead of resolving the crisis symptoms, the BRICS now play a role in amplifying the underlying contradictions. These start with overaccumulation and move to globalisation (the spatial fix), financialisation (the temporal fix), and imperialist super-exploitation (accumulation by dispossession). The strategy of ‘shifting, stalling and stealing’ has various internal contradictions, and so subimperial collaboration is both integral to – and undermining of (due to amplified crisis tendencies) – the broader imperial agenda, in a way that we never witnessed before with semi-peripheral states in the world system.

Nevertheless, this is not an easy segue way from one hegemon (the US) to the next (China), but instead happens in terms of uneven and combined development: overaccumulation of capital, the spatial fix and financialisation occur in different tempos across different spaces, with centrifugal divergences quite apparent within the BRICS (hence the ‘schizophrenic’ label). To illustrate, given that three of the BRICS – Brazil, Russia and South Africa – had deindustrialised during the 1990s and mainly become exporters of raw materials, the 2014-15 commodity price crash hit them particularly hard. China and India maintained steady demand for the three others’ fossil fuels and minerals during the high-growth era. So by 2019, two (the rupee and renmimbi) of the five BRICS’ currency values – as a proxy for economic health – soared to levels between 25 and 55 percent greater than in 2010 against the dollar, while the other three (the real, ruble and rand) each lost 15 percent.

The main problem below these shifting economic sands, though, was that Chinese state capitalists were engaged in such massive overproduction during their Keynesian inward-oriented infrastructure boom in the early 2010s, that their own capacity to produce steel, cement, coal and other raw and semi-beneficiated products suddenly outran their internal demand. That, in turn, led to such high levels of global overcapacity – the ‘overaccumulation of capital’ – that the subsequent export of the surplus at often subsidised rates wiped out other countries’ industries. In 2015, mining industry shares fell precipitously, with the two leading mining and commodity firms, BHP Billiton and Glencore, respectively, dropping more than 85 percent of their stock market share value. China’s artificially low currency valuation, especially in the 2015-19 years of declining yuan strength against the dollar, resulted in a steady competitive attack on even BRICS partners (notwithstanding a brief dip in Chinese output in 2015 when its main producers first became extremely overexposed, and the first overcapacity reduction began).

To illustrate using the case of the steel industry, South Africa today produces around 6 million tons annually, after having peaked at over 9 million tons in the 1990s – a puny figure compared to China’s output of more than 820 million tons (Figure 1). The world’s largest manufacturer, Arcelor Mittal (with output of 96 million tons annually), is owned by Lakshmi Mittal, an Indian. He shuttered several of his South African foundries in 2015–16, just as an apparently impotent Minister of Trade and Industry, Rob Davies (2015), documented how Mittal had engaged in overpricing and disinvestment. The Russian tycoon – Roman Abramovich – who owned South Africa’s second steel company, Evraz Highveld, took the company into formal bankruptcy in 2015, costing 1700 well-paid jobs. He too was suspected of milking that firm on behalf of paying higher salaries for his best Chelsea soccer players (Crowley 2015).

Wild swings in the world price were also evident (Figure 2). From an index level ranging from 100-110 from 1982-2002 (i.e., relatively unchanging), the subsequent hike in steel prices reflected fast-rising Chinese demand. As the commodity super-cycle unfoleded, the price rose to an index level of 294 in mid-2008. But with the Great Recession causing a crash to 169 a year later, Beijing’s rapid Keynesian interventions allowed a recovery to 258. However, after a brief plateau, overcapacity became acute, causing the price to fall to 172 by late 2015. There was a sufficient shake-out that year thanks to a dip in Chinese production and the collapse of other countries’ industries, that the price recovered to 245 by late 2018 – but with another fall in 2019 underway at the time of writing. From the standpoint of the BRICS bloc, the catalytic Chinese overproduction accompanied substantial declines in all the other BRIS countries. Hence, instead of a centripetal, collaborative relationship, the experience of the BRICS’ steel-industry corporations was one of centrifugal, ultra-competitive cannibalism.

Figure 1: Steel overaccumulation driven by China

Source: World Steel Association

Figure 2: Producer price index for iron and steel, 2002-2019 (1982=100)

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis,

Nevertheless, in spite of the underlying tendencies to overaccumulation and subsequent devaluations that sometimes tear the BRICS asunder, a universal dynamic had, until 2019, usually reasserted itself: imperial powers used subimperial allies to strengthen global governance. This may well have ended with the Bolsonaro-Trump project of selective multilateralism, as we will conclude below. Regardless, the general thesis of subimperialism remains hotly contested within both the political scene and in geopolitical relations, so it is important to review the current debate.

3. Contested BRICS narratives: anti-imperial, subimperial or inbetween?

The very word subimperialism raises hackles, especially in sites like Pretoria where a “talk left, walk right” stance prevails (Bond 2006, 2019a). As the BRICS emerged and visited South Africa, host foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane (2013) expressed this frustration:

  • To see BRICS countries as ‘subimperialists’ is the result of a dogmatic application of classical notions of imperialism and Immanuel Wallerstein’s centre-periphery model to a situation that is fundamentally different from what these theories were trying to comprehend and explain. Our scholars have to be innovative and courageous enough to develop new tools of analysis and theoretical models when history challenges us to do so.
  • I am reminded here of a warning Franz Fanon made in his The Wretched of the Earth that, and I quote: “It so happens that the unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps.” The tragic mishap in this case is that such intellectuals will be left behind and rendered irrelevant by history.

However, Nkoana-Mashabane neglected to engage the actual argument about subimperialism. Indeed, the anti-imperial refrain is typically heard in African National Congress (ANC) circuitries, for as Zuma (2016) explained the BRICS to grassroots activists, “It is a small group but very powerful. [The West] did not like BRICS. China is going to be number one economy leader… [Western countries] want to dismantle this BRICS. We have had seven votes of no confidence in South Africa. In Brazil, the president was removed” (referring to the internal parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff). Zuma (2017) reiterated the same point at his party’s mid-2017 policy conference: “the ANC is part of the global anti-imperialist movement. We are historically connected with the countries of the South and therefore South-South cooperation such as BRICS is primary for our movement.” During 2016-17, Zuma repeatedly claimed that because he brought South Africa into the BRICS, the West wanted him out of power, even murdered. [4] There was a certain pride that in the 2017-18 United Nations General Assembly, South Africa’s representative voted with the United States just over 10 percent of the time, leading to opprobrium by Washington’s ambassador, Nikki Haley, and Washington’s threat to cut aid to Pretoria.

Much anti-imperialist rhetoric has focused on the injustice of Western control of global financial circuits. At the 2015 Ufa Summit, Zuma expressed the need for an alternative to the Bretton Woods Institutions in a Russia Today interview: “They want to dictate what you should do. You can’t utilise that kind of assistance the way you want. So, in a sense, it has conditions that will keep you dependent all the time. That’s what we’re trying to take ourselves out of” (Ebrahim 2015).

His successor Cyril Ramaphosa (2018) told the United Nations annual leaders summit in 2018 that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other multilateral institutions “need to be reshaped and enhanced so that they may more effectively meet the challenges of the contemporary world and better serve the interests of the poor and marginalised.” In early 2019, Ramaphosa went further: “We are not going to be a puppet of the West. We are a proud nation and can never subject ourselves to that after going through what we went through… We are trying to do everything we can to not fall into the hands of the IMF” (Malope 2019).

In December 2018, similar language was heard in Russian Communist Party chairperson Gennady Zyuganov’s speech to the Johannesburg meeting of the BRICS ‘Political Parties Plus Dialogue’:

  • For the first time in history a powerful group of countries representing three continents has emerged to protect the interests, not only of their population but of many other countries not prepared at this stage to challenge the global rule of the West… New forces emerging in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East are increasingly challenging the global domination of the old colonial powers, which are determined to retain control over the world by economic blackmail, information genocide and military interventions… The results of this important forum will be a major step in the liberation of mankind of the last vestiges of neocolonialism – a guiding star on the road to universal peace and prosperity. (Sokutu 2018)

For such reasons, one of Africa’s leading Third-World-nationalist political strategists, Yash Tandon (2018), does not agree that we should consider the BRICS to be subimperial:

  • Imperialism is a historical phenomenon created during the rise of capitalism and its by-product, colonialism. China and India traded with Africa for a thousand years but never colonised Africa. There are undoubtedly asymmetrical power relations between China and African countries, just as there are asymmetrical power relations between the US and Europe. But in terms of their relationship, the US does not have imperial relations with, for example, the United Kingdom. In the same vein, Chinese (and Russian and Indian) relations with Africa are not imperial, nor subimperial.

Tandon (2018) doesn’t see this as permanent, however:

  • Africa’s principal contradiction is with the Anglo-American Empire. Russia and China might become “imperialist” in relation to Africa. They might, but for now they are “tactical” allies of Africa. In this struggle – for some 30 years, and in the case of South Africa, nearly 50 years – the Soviet Union and China were “tactical” allies. They provided diplomatic as well as military support to Africa… For Africa and the global South, BRICS offers a promising tangible alternative to the declining Western powers and their institutions of global economic and political governance. These have lost their credibility and legitimacy. As for the ‘Ultra-Left’ comrades, you may throw bricks at BRICS but these will land, surely, on your own feet.

Like the politicians quoted above, Tandon (2014, 2018) has not yet openly conceded the malevolent roles of BRICS countries in institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, World Trade Organisation (WTO), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and G20, nor the often predatory roles of the BRICS’ firms in Africa. So although Tandon (2017) termed South Africa a ‘neo-colony’ when Zuma played a subservient role in the 2018 G20 summit, it was as if the political problem remains one of neo-colonial power relations, instead of the global imposition of neoliberal capitalism, against which Tandon himself was long on the frontlines of struggle. [5] The BRICS’ role within the broader operation of an imperialism that is not merely a colonial legacy, but instead an ongoing system of multinational corporate extraction, is not – perhaps for tactical reasons related to alliances – up for discussion in his otherwise prolific geopolitical commentary.

Tandon’s (2014) main confusion, repeated by the lead scholar of transnational capitalist class formation, William Robinson (2015: 257), is in believing that subimperialism implies

  • every country that follows the neoliberal economic paradigm, and seeks market or an avenue for capital export to a neighbouring country a subimperialist. Thus, in their lexicon, Kenya becomes a subimperialist country in the East African region – it exports both goods and capital within the region. But then what about Uganda? It exports Chinese-made ‘subimperialist’ goods to Rwanda and the DRC, as well as acting as conduit for Chinese capital in the region. Does that make Uganda also ‘subimperialist’?

Figure 3: Profit flows, 2015-17 (average dividend receipts as percent of dividend payments)

Source: South African Reserve Bank, 2019

Tandon’s questions can be readily answered with another: to what extent can these particular states exercise power in the world economy? Kenya and Uganda are somewhat trivial, and South Africa is less so. To provide one indicator, surplus flows between the corporations of various countries reveal a clear hierarchy: first, a group of imperialist countries whose firms draw in above 100 percent of dividends from other countries, net of payments of dividends to others; second, a group which draws net dividends in the 20-60 percent range; and third, a group of peripheral countries below 20 percent (Figure 3). [6]

Similarly, leading World-Systems scholar William Martin (2013, 2019) reaffirms opposition to the term subimperial. The problem he sees in relation to South Africa – which before apartheid ended in 1994, was the West’s main African ally – is the evolution of international power over the past quarter century. Martin (2019: 54) argues: “Subimperial relationships created by white-settler rule have been rent asunder by two forces: one, the slow demise of US hegemony and its neo-liberal counter-revolution; and two and most disruptively for current theoretical schemas, the displacement of North-South relationships with East–South engagements.”

Yet the ‘old’ apartheid-corporate relationships of white South Africa backed by the West got a new, relegitimised lease on life after Nelson Mandela (1994-99) and Thabo Mbkei (1999-2008) repeatedly reinserted South Africa into global neoliberal management, to the benefit partly of those very white elites who liberalised their wealth out of South Africa and restructured the local economy to one even more unequal and poverty-stricken than before (Bond 2005, 2006, 2014). The demise of Washington’s hegemony may continue apace as the US loses world economic market share, but parts of it – such as in global finance, trade and climate policy – remain formidable. The ‘displacement’ of North-South with East-West lines of power is hotly debated, e.g. by John Smith (2018) and David Harvey (2018). [7] Martin’s deeper critique, however, is that the very framing of imperialism in terms of capitalist versus the non-capitalist spheres, following Luxemburg, causes ‘a major difficulty’:

  • the concept inevitably traces downward from crises of accumulation in advanced capitalist states (via overproduction, underconsumption, falling rate of profit, etc.), to their resolution by a new burst of forcing open and exploiting poorer, so-called ‘pre-’or ‘non-’ capitalist areas, states and peoples… Contemporary discussions of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ by following this path often construct a relatively homogeneous, residual and objectified Global South that is operated upon from above. In a common scenario: an accumulation crisis in the North is resolved by Northern states and capital opening up ‘non-capitalist’ areas in the South (Martin 2013: 166-67).

One part of Martin’s concern is correct: the argument stretching back to Luxemburg (1913) that overaccumulation crisis as often behind the metabolism of capital penetrating the non-capitalist spheres – whether in the ‘South’ considered geographically, or, instead as does Prashad (2014), with respect to class power including within the North (e.g. urban ghettoes are better considered ‘Global South’ than my neighbourhood and office in central Johannesburg).

But Martin (2019: 55) incorrectly smears this argument as a “reductive, Euro-American conception,” neglecting that the leading dependencias also focused on super-exploitative relationships associated with multinational corporate exploitation. Critics from Latin America (e.g. Marini 1972) and especially Africa – e.g. Samir Amin (1990), Dani Nabudere (2009), AnnMarie Wolpe (with Kuhn, 1980) and Harold Wolpe (1980) – were acutely aware of this superexploitation. Indeed, often the ‘scramble for Africa’ in 1885 (Phimister 1992) and subsequent twists and turns in the colonial and apartheid systems ravaging Africa reflected bouts of overaccumulation crisis in the North (Bond 2003). (For example, South Africa’s most rapid historical growth spurt, especially in manufacturing, occurred during the 1930s-40s, demonstrating the economy’s ability to ‘delink’ from the then-collapsing northern capitalist circuits.)

This misreading leads to another of Martin’s concerns, regarding agency:

  • In these formulations, the South and its peoples play little role, if any, in the crisis and its resolution through a geographical ‘spatial fix’ that provides new markets and new sources of cheap labour and raw materials… This is particularly problematic for eminently capitalist areas as illustrated by Lenin’s short, ambiguous references to ‘semi-colonies’ and ‘semi-independent countries’, or today’s uncertain formulations surrounding the so-called BRICS, Newly Industrialising Countries (NICs), Turkey, Venezuela and similarly strong ex-colonial and ex-imperial states (Martin 2019: 54). [8]

Again, Martin misses a most crucial point stemming from the anti-subimperial literature, which is that if ‘the South’ is now led by the BRICS, it is mainly their state and corporate elites’ compradorism on the one hand, and progressive movements’ agency on the other, that are under our ‘brics-from-below’ microscopes (e.g. Bond and Garcia 2015, Bond 2018a, Garcia and Bond 2018, 2018). Still, Martin concludes his most recent argument with the allegation that “China, and the BRICS more generally, are not, of course, an anti-capitalist initiative. But neither are they handmaidens of US neoliberalism” (2019: 69). On the contrary, in January 2017 at the World Economic Forum, Xi was – for all effective purposes – handed the baton of world neoliberal leader (formerly held by Obama), as Donald Trump prepared to enter the White House. Xi had become a Davos Man:

  • Economic globalisation resulted from growing social productivity, and is a natural outcome of scientific and technological progress, not something created by any individuals or any countries. Economic globalisation has powered global growth and facilitated movement of goods and capital, advances in science, technology and civilisation, and interactions among peoples… Whether you like it or not, the global economy is the big ocean that you cannot escape from. Any attempt to cut off the flow of capital, technologies, products, industries and people between economies, and channel the waters in the ocean back into isolated lakes and creeks is simply not possible (Xi 2017).

In this context, in which the BRICS fit within – not against – the global corporate system of accumulation, Martin’s (2019: 68) view of South-South elite relationships is disappointingly uncritical, since, for example, all the South Africa-China deals of which he approves – dating to the 2015 peak period of Zuma-era larceny – were actually duds: unworkable, extremely corrupt and notably carbon-intensive. [9]

4. Western-BRICS power relations during World Bank and IMF ‘reform’

One way to assess current imperial-subimperial relations is the debate over global policy reform, especially in contested sites such as the IMF and World Bank, WTO, UNFCCC the G20 and G8 (until 2014, and now G7 without Vladimir Putin’s Russia). In practically all of these, the BRICS are in diverse ways implicated in nurturing imperial power relations. Consider first, trade, then climate and then an in-depth view of global financial power relations.

In 2015, the Nairobi summit of the World Trade Organisation brought agricultural subsidies and hence food sovereignty to an end, once US and European negotiators drew support from Brazilian agribusiness (as expected) and even Modi’s Indian delegation. The Chinese, South African and Russian delegations did not object, although this was a major attack on the ability of poor countries to feed their populations (Raghavan 2015). The objective, Xi (2017) made clear in Davos, was prohibiting “any attempt to cut off the flow of capital, technologies, products, industries…,” even if that included the kinds of protection required to ensure food sovereignty, or safeguard organic agriculture, or establish infant industries.

Second, the 2015 UNFCCC Paris Climate Agreement reflected a deal between four of the BRICS (minus Russia) with Obama in Copenhagen six years earlier. The result is that commitments to emissions cuts are too small and in any case non-binding. There continues to be unending extraction of fossil fuels, with no UNFCCC regulation. Nor are emissions caused by military, maritime and air transport covered. The return of carbon trading is endorsed. The main beneficiaries of the inevitable increase in emissions in the wake of Paris are corporations and wealthy residents of carbon-intensive rich and middle-income countries, especially the BRICS (Bond 2016).

Third, financial power has been hotly contested once the world’s worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression unfolded in 2008-09. The initial Western response was a massive artificial boost to financial liquidity (mainly through ‘Quantitative Easing’ by central banks in the US, Britain, Europe and Japan), the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights quotas (its underlying capitalisation) and other financing powers were raised by members to $1 trillion. As a result, its conditionality capacity grew dramatically (Varoufakis 2017). A further 2012 recapitalisation – mainly used in southern European countries – included $75 billion more in donations from the BRICS countries, but with distortions in voting power that mainly hurt poorer countries. In both the 2009 and 2012 recapitalisations, South African finance ministers Trevor Manuel and Pravin Gordhan were instrumental in Bretton Woods Institution relegitimisation. Manuel was the main IMF ally during Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s successful attempt at recapitalising, between the IMF annual meeting in October 2008, all the way through his May 2011 resignation-in-disgrace. Gordhan regularly supported the Bank and IMF in ideology and concrete machinations, even at the trough of its legitimacy. [10]

But it was telling that finally, the 2010-15 negotiations over “quota reform” – i.e., a less unfair distribution of power within the IMF – ended when the US Congress agreed to shifting most countries’ voting weight, some quite significantly. Washington agreed to drop its share by 2 percent and Tokyo agreed to shrink by 1 percent, while the main European powers each declined by between 5 and 9 percent. That, in turn, allowed the share controlled by four of the BRICS (all except South Africa) to rise substantially: China by 37 percent, Brazil by 23 percent, India by 11 percent and Russia by 8 percent (Table 1).

However, to round out the changes to the voting shares, not only did the BRIC countries become the main gainers (with these four states among the top ten IMF owners), some of the poorest countries were in the process dramatically disempowered at the IMF. Nigeria lost 40 percent of its votes, and so too did South Africa lose 21 percent, with weaker African countries losing shares between those two: Libya (-39 percent), Morocco (-27 percent), and Gabon, Algeria and Namibia (all -26 percent). Many Latin American and Asian countries also lost substantial amounts of IMF voting shares. In short, the BRIC countries gained power and a seat at the IMF high table, mainly by standing on poorer countries’ heads, pushing them down. This is one basis for the label coined by Marini (1972), to describe the role of nations that ‘actively collaborate’ in the extension of imperial power: subimperial.

Table 1: Changes in the IMF top ten owner-countries’ voting shares, 2010-present

Country20102019percent change
United States 16.7 16.5 -2
Japan 6.2 6.1 -1
China 3.8 6.1 37
Germany 5.8 5.3 -9
France 4.3 4.0 -7
United Kingdom 4.3 4.0 -7
Italy 3.2 3.0 -5
India 2.3 2.6 11
Russian Federation 2.4 2.6 8
Brazil 1.7 2.2 23
Source: International Monetary Fund

Moreover, after 2009, the IMF came to rule over not just impoverished but also so-called “emerging” economies (e.g., the recipient of its largest-ever loan was Argentina following its 2017-18 meltdown) – just as during the 1980s-90s – and even began imposing austerity on poor residents of the southern European countries that had fallen into crisis. [11] Unfortunately, the BRICS offered no alternative to this power, for in 2014, at the Fortaleza BRICS summit, the original Articles of Agreement of the CRA (signed by Gordhan) actually strengthened the IMF, against the expectations of many observers. [12] Due to Chinese pressure, the CRA founding agreement required that after 30 percent of a country’s quota was borrowed (e.g. $3 billion for South Africa), the debtor would then need to access an IMF structural adjustment programme to receive the next 70 percent. [13]

Meanwhile, across 18th Street in Washington, the World Bank turned even more decisively to serving private sector interests during the BRICS’ ascent, culminating in 2018 when, according to the New York Times, its president Jim Yong Kim became intent on the Bank “remaking itself as a creature of Wall Street… Kim has tried to present the bank as a tool to enhance the [Trump] administration’s ‘America First’ policy.” As he told The Times, “Ivanka, Jared, Gary Cohn, Dina Powell — they all know our business model very well” (Thomas 2018). In his final lecture as Bank president, at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in December 2018, Kim (2018) announced, “The ten things that are included in the Washington Consensus, most of them are really good. Most of them are things like central banks should be independent from state government. Most of those ideas are really good.” Kim had coedited a 2000 book, Dying for Growth (Kim et al 2000), which was extremely critical of neoliberalism as practiced at the Bank, but he was wrong on this elementary point. Of the ten commandments associated with the Washington Consensus (Williamson 2004), an independent Reserve Bank was not included. [14]

Assimilation of critics is an old, effective strategy, including the likes of Kim, his replacement David Malpass and the BRICS leadership. In 2008, to illustrate, the G20 was created by expanding the traditional G7, which generally coordinated geopolitical and economic strategy for global capitalism. As the global financial meltdown began, the new grouping incorporated all the BRICS and several other middle-income regimes (which were especially vital for fund-raising during the world financial bailouts). It is apparent that the IMF and World Bank simply coopted the BRICS elites by adding them to the power structure, e.g. second-tier leader roles for several bureaucrats from the BRICS. In the case of the WTO, the director-general during the 2010s was a Brazilian, Roberto Azevêdo, a man described by Tandon (2015) as “not neutral – a free market fundamentalist [who] works for the Empire.”

Reflecting how such assimilation can prevent collective action for genuine reform, the BRICS directors at the Bretton Woods Institutions were divided about suggesting non-Western leaders when the opportunities arose, especially, first, during the 2011 IMF Managing Director’s replacement, which was from the neo-Keynesian Dominique Strauss-Kahn to the neoliberal Christine Lagarde. She was also reappointed with BRICS directors’ support in 2015 and reaffirmed unanimously even after her 2016 Paris court conviction on corruption charges (for ‘negligence’ in giving a French Conservative Party donor $430 million) (Thomas et al 2016). Second, a split emerged, as well, during the 2012 World Bank President’s replacement, from neoconservative Robert Zoellick during the Bush administration to the neoliberal Kim during the Obama administration (Bond 2012).

In February 2019, Trump announced Kim’s replacement by Malpass, a China-basher of note who as Bear Stearns chief economist in mid-2007 notoriously predicted that “the housing- and debt-market corrections will probably add to the length of the US economic expansion” (Malpass 2007). Instead, his own institution went bankrupt in March 2008 and within months, the world financial meltdown was underway. In spite of that exceptional display of incompetence, Malpass offered at least one useful insight about World Bank staff when testifying a decade later to the US House Committee on Financial Services (2017):

  • Malpass: “They’re often corrupt in their lending practices, and they don’t get the benefit to the actual people in the countries. They get the benefit to the people who fly in on a first-class airplane ticket to give advice to the government officials in the country, that flow of money is large, but not so much the actual benefit to normal people within poor countries, and that’s what I’d like to see change.”
  • Rep. Maxine Waters: “Do you have an example of that?”
  • Malpass: “Well, for example, we have countries such as South Africa that are deteriorating rapidly as their government is unable to provide efficiency and effectiveness... South Africa is heavily indebted and not making progress and is not being well served by its relationships with international financial institutions.”

If he had been pushed for a more detailed reply, Malpass could have referred to the World Bank’s largest-ever project loan ($3.75 billion): the Medupi coal-fired power plant, one rife with not only extreme incompetence (in 2019 half the plant was still under construction, seven years behind schedule, but suffering debilitating design flaws that reduced its generation capacity to half power), and corruption (involving Hitachi and the ruling ANC, which was prosecuted successfully in Washington under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, although South Africans received none of the proceeds from the $19 million fine). Indeed, the outstanding debt should simply be canceled on grounds of lender co-liability (Bond 2012). But most remarkably, in spite of a blunt corruption allegation of this sort – bound to sting South African elites like Gordhan, who in 2010 lobbied extremely hard for the Bank loan to Medupi – none of the BRICS leadership publicly opposed Malpass’ appointment or suggested their own replacement.

Instead, the overarching sentiment was one of despondent resignation, e.g. in Beijing’s Global Times (usually a reliable indicator of elite opinion) where Export-Import Bank chief risk analyst Zhao Changhui (2019) looked ahead:

  • When the world needs the World Bank most in order to maintain, defend and lead multilateralism, Malpass is about to assume the leadership of the organisation, which is not a good sign. Under these circumstances, China must recognise the devastating consequences of the US containment to the nation and must implement the Chinese solution wisely and with strategic initiative. In other words, we must keep an objective and realistic attitude. The World Bank should no longer be the main battleground for China’s efforts. While it may receive loans as a recipient country, it is in fact facing increasingly harsh pressure.

As for more general prospects that the Bank’s perspective could shift, said Zhao (2019), “From the perspective of governance structure, as long as the US still wants to maintain its grip on the World Bank, it would be hard to see any actual reform progress, with major shareholders, other than the US, unlikely to push for any new changes. There is no need for China to rush to spend too much time, efforts and resources on this issue, unless a new opportunity presents itself for World Bank reforms.”

However, well before the Malpass appointment, reform had failed. Judging by how little changed at the Bretton Woods Institutions since the advent of the BRICS – notwithstanding the replacement of a sex pest (indeed, alleged rapist) with a woman leading the IMF, and the appointment of a former leftist NGO activist as World Bank president – the Bretton Woods Institutions were impervious to the kinds of pressures these countries’ leaders attempted to apply. Notwithstanding all the hype, the BRICS’ multilateral financial strategy appears to have derailed. Moreover, the Malpass era will likely witness the end of World Bank support to Chinese projects.

In short, power structures can readily integrate not only unusual personnel (a woman lawyer – then in 2011 already facing corruption charges – to lead the world’s main financial institution and a radical intellectual at the Bank), but also an unusual power bloc of aspiring capitalist states (the BRICS). Zhau (2019) is correct that no further gestures towards changing Western-dominated multilateral finance are likely to come from China, or indeed from the BRICS.

5. Conclusion

The argument presented above suggests that instead of declining US hegemony and the assimilation of a united, reform-oriented BRICS within global economic governance, as would follow logically from ‘middle power’ rhetoric (whether from politicians or sympathetic analysts), a more nuanced approach to subimperial analysis is required. That nuance starts with the difference between necessary and contingent processes, and moves through the kinds of overaccumulation crises and reactions in capital’s shifting, stalling and stealing processes described above. The rise of the subimperial powers is logical, as the hegemonic power goes into decline and geopolitical multipolarity emerges. At this point, the BRICS (especially China) are implicated in catalysing the overaccumulation and in arranging new spatio-temporal fixes and amplified processes of accumulation by dispossession. As an ersatz bloc, the BRICS’ participation in world financial (mis)management is just one example (see Bond 2018a and Garcia and Bond 2018 for many others).

No matter how schizophrenically their geopolitical behaviour appears, the BRICS are, evidently, consistent in one process: amplifying world capitalism’s centrifugal self-destruction. Historically, the only solution to global-scale overaccumulation crisis has been ‘devaluation,’ which took the forms of world-wide depressions and wars in prior epochs. Both types of devaluation destroy productive capital, and thus clear the way for a new round of accumulation (Harvey 1999, Bond 2019b). Today, partial devaluation is so difficult to control, strategically, that even as centralised a capitalist state as Beijing finds it impossible to manage the promised industrial capacity cuts. The most exposed, least competitive economic units – such as South Africa’s steel plants, not to mention vastly over-indebted corporations and countries – will continue to go bankrupt at an increasing pace, into the next world recession and perhaps depression.

Such devaluation could, in theory, contribute to the emergence of a ‘degrowth’ political economy, in which a globally-planned Just Transition away from fossil-intensive energy, transport, agriculture, urbanisation, production, consumption and disposal systems occurs, a ‘This Changes Everything’ opportunity (Klein 2014, Bond 2019b). But it is far more likely, given the balance of forces, that the centrifugal pressures will take the forms of much more uncreative destruction of overaccumulation, including mass economic misery and heightened geopolitical rivalries, probably leading to renewed war.

It is already obvious how such contemporary centrifugal tensions can be felt, politically, in catastrophic forms, and it is here that we might better understand the BRICS’ own fracturing due to the Bolsonaro wedge. One aspect of the current crisis was discussed in Houston, Texas, after nearly two years of the Trump presidency, in November 2018. At Rice University’s James Baker Center, Obama openly confessed to Baker – formerly a Reagan-Bush era foreign and finance minister – how neoliberalism dating to the early 1980s bred a right-wing backlash: “You have this period of great smugness on the part of America and American elites, thinking, ‘We got this all figured out.’ Remember there were books coming out that it’s the end of history.” Baker replied, “Yeah, The End of History, Francis Fukuyama.” Concluded Obama, “Yeah, that came back to bite us” (Norton 2018).

That ‘bite’ was from the right; it may well signal Washington’s ‘retreat’ from multilateralism (e.g. in the UNFCCC and WTO); or on the other hand, if Trump continues with the sort of strategy unveiled in early 2019 with the World Bank presidency, it may simply be a case of more bullying to get his way. But there are also left-wing reactions to the imperial-subimperial relationship, and particularly to the way the BRICS damage their own people, their environment and their hinterland neighbours. To address the potential for resisting subimperialism first requires addressing the underlying characterisation of the phenomenon (including persistent denialism in use of the term, as shown above). That, in turn, allows for greater clarity about who allies are – in contrast to the denialism of a Tandon (2018) who for all his superb contributions to weakening global neoliberalism, bizarrely considers the Moscow and Beijing regimes as Africa’s allies.

To turn, finally, to the weakest link in the BRICS from the standpoint of bottom-up resistance, Pretoria, the history of anti-imperialist activism in South Africa is impressive. It ranges from anti-apartheid/colonial movements through 1994; to ongoing Cuba, Palestine and Burma solidarity and regional campaigning for freedom in Zimbabwe and eSwatini (Swaziland); to the fight against Big Pharma over AIDS medicines from 1999-2005; to ‘Jubilee 2000’ debt cancellation and reparations advocacy; to early 2000’s integrated global struggles against French and British water privatisers; to critiques of specific firms including Lonmin (UK), Basf (Germany) and MRC (Australia); to climate justice movement building (especially when Durban hosted the UNFCCC in 2011); to internal anti-xenophobia activism. Some internationalism is self-interested and not ‘progressive,’ but is still useful: e.g. when white capital led by Johann Rupert helped liberals and a few radical activists drive the London public relations firm Bell Pottinger to bankruptcy in 2017, as part of the overall critique of the ‘Zupta’ (Zuma-Gupta) power structure. That process continued with the delegitimation and corporate boycott of KPMG, McKinsey, SAP, Bain and several other multinational corporations, for their role in covering up Gupta corruption (Bond 2019a).

The fragmented, disconnected character of these sorts of anti-imperial and anti-subimperial politics also requires more attention. More coordination will be necessary if activists and the allies in society aim to be increasingly effective in the period ahead, given that the targets for critics of subimperial capital accumulation are so diverse. It was relatively easy for South African activists to push back Rosatom’s 2015-18 $100 billion nuclear energy deal signed with Zuma at the 2015 Ufa summit. Resisting the largest shareholder in Anglo American Corporation – India’s notorious Anil Agarwal (FoilVedanta 2019) – will be harder. Chinese state capital’s incursions into South Africa, including financial relations through the China Development Bank, were rife with corruption, a problem that continues with the BRICS New Development Bank’s 2016-19 loans to Eskom, Transnet, the Development Bank of Southern Africa and the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (Bond 2019c).

Perhaps the greatest challenge of all in coming years, aside from climate change, will be the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution. After all, the vast majority of South African investors (including those workers with pension funds) have unwittingly acquired a material interest in Chinese state surveillance of their Facebook/Twitter-equivalent customers, and in the ‘social credit’ manipulation and repression of 1.4 billion people. This is because the Beijing’s primary corporate agent, Tencent, is 30 percent owned by Naspers (a formerly pro-apartheid media house), which accounts for 22 percent of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange share value. In 2018, Tencent assisted in prohibiting 23 million people from traveling on Chinese planes and trains, because of those citizens’ personal social-credit ratings by the Beijing regime as ‘anti-social.’ The same term will readily fit those progressive Chinese activists organising trade unions, fighting pollution, trying to halt rural land-grabs, or even convening Marxist reading groups.

These are the contradictions now surfacing, in South African, BRICS and global politics, representing the most sophisticated top-down attack on the rights of the masses ever witnessed in human history. Bottom-up resistance – which we might term ‘brics from below’ – has enormous potential, as a result of so many different kinds of targets (bricsfrombelow 2019). It does probably help to name the broader problem ‘imperialism,’ no matter its Trumpian ‘anti-globalist’ deviations, and also name the BRICS (not just Bolsonaro) as ‘subimperial’ accomplices, for these labels represent the first analytical steps that must be taken to confront the world’s contradictions and power relations with the clarity required. Still, while theory is vital to work out – so as to assess opportunities for appropriate principles, analyses, strategies, tactics and alliances – the semantic disputes reviewed above do appear relatively trivial, compared to the concrete struggles for humanity’s and the planet’s survival, that appear on the immediate horizon.


By Patrick Bond, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa
in US Imperialism and the BRICS, edited by V. Satgar, Johannesburg, Wits University Press, 2020
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Footnotes :

[1In 2018, according to Pagliarini (2019), “Araújo ingratiated himself to the United States by proposing an alliance between the world’s three largest Christian countries – Brazil, the United States, and Russia – to counter what he called ‘the globalist axis’ made up of China, Europe, and the US left. Other symbolically important gestures include Brazil’s withdrawal from the UN Compact on Migration; equivocation over whether it will abandon the Paris climate accord; its stated intention to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, irking important trading partners in the Arab world; and its participation in the aggressive international campaign to isolate and ultimately remove Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. Brazil’s new willingness to cede its hemispheric leadership is linked to a desire to defer to a Trump-led United States.”
However, there are probably limits to this revival of Washington’s dominance, as John Reimann (2019) points out: “Bolsonaro reversed his previous position and said that a US military base in Brazil would not be allowed. This reversal followed opposition from Bolsonaro’s own military high command. The practical meaning of this is that a US invasion of Venezuela would have to come through Colombia, from the sea or from the air; it could not come through Brazil. The reason for the opposition from Brazil’s military brass is that, as opposed to the Brazilian Trump – Bolsonaro – the military leaders know how explosive a US invasion anywhere on the continent would be. There would be an outcry throughout Latin America so huge that it would threaten regimes including Bolsonaro’s.”

[2The first formal BRIC gathering was in 2006 when foreign ministers met at the United Nations, followed by heads-of-state summits at Yekaterinburg hosted by Vladimir Putin in 2009, by Lula da Silva at Brasilia in 2010, Wen Jia Bao at Sanya in 2011, Manmohan Singh at New Delhi in 2012, Jacob Zuma at Durban in 2013, Dilma Rousseff at Fortaleza in 2014, Putin at Ufa in 2015, Narendra Modi at Goa in 2016, Xi Jinping at Xiamen in 2017, Cyril Ramaphosa in Johannesburg in 2018, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia in 2019.

[3Since 2013, leaders from neighbouring states and regional blocs have also been invited to spend time with the BRICS leaders (usually a half-day after the members’ meeting closes). In Johannesburg in 2018, in addition to select African heads of state, the main guests were regional leaders who were also heads of state of: Egypt (as Chair of the G77+China), Argentina (Chair of the G20 and a MERCOSUR member), Indonesia (Co-Chair with SA of the New Africa-Asia Strategic Partnership and an ASEAN member), Jamaica (incoming Chair of CARICOM), and Turkey (as Chair of the OIC). In Xiamen in 2017, the BRICS-Plus group was initiated to include Egypt, Guinea, Mexico, Tajikistan and Thailand. In Goa in 2016, notably, regional collaboration did not include Pakistan, but did include India’s Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation neighbours: Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal. In Ufa in 2015, the BRICS overlapped with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which includes Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan along with the observer states Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan. In Brasilia just after the 2014 Fortaleza meeting, the Brazilian hosts invited leaders from the Union of South American Nations, including Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela. The tradition of drawing in the host’s friendly neighbours was begun in Durban in 2013, when more than a dozen African leaders (never formally named) joined the summit at the Zimbali Lodge.

[4In mid-2017, Zuma announced to grassroots supporters, “I was poisoned and almost died just because South Africa joined BRICS under my leadership” (Matiwane 2017). His mid-2014 poisoning was actually carried out by his fourth wife, whom Zuma’s confidant Gayton Mckenzie (2017) claimed was operating in league with the US Central Intelligence Agency, to halt the progress of the BRICS. However, no one has produced any proof and state investigations mysteriously ground to a halt in 2016.

[5Amongst Tandon’s heroic roles were leading insider African critiques of the 1999 WTO – which put an end to the West’s Seattle ‘Millennial Round’ ambitions – and directing the South Centre in the 2010s.

[6Data from the South African Reserve Bank’s records provide the most up-to-date snapshot of net profit flows that I have found. Prior to the data’s availability, Robinson’s (2015: 256) critique was that, “Bond seems to see the world economy as boxed into national economies and capitals, yet the extent of global economic integration and the transnationalisation of capital in the 21st century undermines any significant analytical purchase to dividing the world’s economies into imperialist, subimperialist and imperialised.”
With the 2015 data suggesting a clear division in surplus flows, assuming their country headquarters are valid units of analysis, Robinson (2019) nevertheless offered this reply, in correspondence: “I would not change my critique of the subimperialist thesis. Specifically, I understand the surplus flows you are documenting and they are highly relevant, but my critique in terms of who (what capitalist groups) control and appropriate these flows has not changed, in so far as the transnational and interpenetrated structure of global capital and the global financial infrastructure renders an analysis that takes nation-states as a stand-in for global capital clusters is misleading, ie, the imperialist extraction is not by nation-states but by transnational capital. This does not at all render irrelevant your data but means we need to interpret it in terms other than the subimperialist frame.”
My rebuttal is that naturally, the extraction is by corporations, not ‘nation-states’ – but these national units, their currency valuations – as above – and their leaders’ capacity to marshal their capital-fractional elites’ interests as a national project are all quite evident within the BRICS. What geographers often describe as a nested hierarchy of bounded spaces of differing size (Delaney and Leitner 1997: 93) still corresponds to these capitals’ interests and their national projects.

[7See Bond 2018b for the argument that neither is correct, having neglected subimperial powers and resource extraction from their recent polemics. Smith (2019) later acknowledges that subimperialism occurs “when the capitalist rulers of a subject nation in turn subject other, even weaker, nations and peoples to their political and economic domination” but neglects to develop the theme notwithstanding its importance to the current conjuncture.

[8Martin (2019) worries that my using an ‘anti-imperialist’ framing to describe BRICS elite rhetoric (as above) – particularly the anti-imperialist fantasies of supporters, e.g. the eloquent commentator Pepe Escobar (2013) – is to make “analytical and political missteps.” But in claiming that ‘BRICS go over the wall,’ Escobar (2013) certainly does at least try to posit anti-imperialist if not inter-imperialist possibilities: “When Putin stressed that he does not see the BRICS as a ‘geopolitical competitor’ to the West, it was the clincher; the official denial that confirms it’s true. Durban may be solidifying just the beginning of such a competition. It goes without saying that Western elites – even mired in stagnation and bankruptcy – won’t let any of their privileges go without a fierce fight.”

[9Martin (2019: 68) approvingly cites a “$2.5 billion credit line to South African rail and transport operator Transnet” – one which by 2017 was revealed to be rife with corruption associated with the Gupta immigrants’ role in Transnet’s purchase of 1000 locomotives from China South Rail, especially for coal exports, but with such a large share going to dubious middle men that by 2018 Transnet’s chief executive was fired and in early 2019, the new chair had to beseech China South Rail to repay some of the funds.
Second was “a $500 million China Development Bank loan to electricity utility Eskom for badly needed power plant construction,” but instead of financing renewables, it went to two extremely-corrupt coal-fired power plants, Medupi and Kusile (at 4800MW, the largest being built on the planet at the time), whose procurement system was so corrupt that the US Securities and Exchange Commission successfully prosecuted the Japanese firm Hitachi in 2015 for bribing the ANC through its investment arm.
Third, Martin notes China’s “plans for the country’s largest automobile plant,” which was in reality only a $760 million investment by Beijing Auto Investment Company for a project that should have been completed in 2017 but was interminably delayed, at least until late 2019. Moreover, confessed even the pro-Chinese Independent chain of newspapers, the cars emerged from semi-knock-down kits, hence “serious doubts have been expressed in motor industry circles about the claims that the vehicle was manufactured in South Africa... the local media reported that the construction had been moving at a snail’s pace and all small, medium and micro enterprises had vacated the premises due to non-payment” (Cokayne 2019).
Another high-profile Chinese investment promise, as a Hebei Iron and Steel plant able to produce five million ton/year (i.e. raising local output by 80 percent) promised for 2017, never materialised. The 2018 Chinese pledge to Ramaphosa that a 4600MW coal-fired power plant would be built near the South Africa-Zimbabwe border to power a massive new metallurgical complex immediately went quiet after the high-profile announcement. In sum, all such promises by multinational corporations should be looked at with a grain of salt, in a neoliberal era in which attracting Foreign Direct Investment often appears as the main role for jejune political leaders.

[10Reflecting only a brief moment of rebelliousness, in 2012 Gordhan proposed an alternative World Bank presidential candidate who was not a US citizen, and hence lost. Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala had performed well within the institutional boundaries when she served for 21 years at the Bank, including as a Managing Director. In January 2012, just before Gordhan’s nomination, she nearly caused her own government in Abuja (led by Goodluck Jonathan) to fall, as a result of mass national protests which began when she unquestioningly took International Monetary Fund advice to end retail petrol subsidies. She then left the Nigerian government to join international bankers Lazard (New York) and Standard Chartered (London).

[11Gordhan favoured applying what he termed ‘nasty’ austerity policies to these northern countries, as he remarked in a 2011 radio interview (Moneyweb 2011), the effect of which was to line the South African government and its taxpayers up with the IMF and European Union leadership and allied state leadership against poor and working-class people of the peripheral European states, just as he had lined up in a similar configuration in the emerging and poorest economies (Bond 2013). While it is true that a British Labour government required an IMF bailout loan and early structural adjustment in 1976, this degree of IMF invasiveness within the EU was unprecedented, because it occurred in combination with the European Central Bank and European Union (the ‘troika’) (Varoufakis 2017).

[12There are a dozen cases of leftist political economists misinterpreting the power relations (Bond 2016). One important politically-liberal reform-oriented academic, Stephanie Griffith-Jones [2014, 3], who had been sympathetic to the BRICS, argued in 2014 that the NDB is “a dream coming true,” for she predicted the opposite, namely that “the BRICS CRA will not include a link to the IMF, which brings about policy conditionality in the event of crisis.”

[13In South Africa’s case, this would allow an immediate $3 billion CRA balance-of-payments loan, but to get the next $7 billion would require IMF intervention. The $170+ billion foreign debt South Africa has accumulated will require tranche repayments of such magnitude in coming years, with world financial turbulence growing, that the danger of IMF intervention continually rises.

[14The ten are fiscal discipline, reorientation of public expenditures, tax reform, financial liberalisation, unified and competitive exchange rates, trade liberalisation, openness to Direct Foreign Investment, privatisation, deregulation and secure property rights (Williamson 2004). Applied in practice across the world since the 1980s, these aspects of structural adjustment were all destructive to public health and more general social welfare and environmental sustainability.
An earlier network that Kim associated with – 50 Years is Enough! – strenuously objected to the Washington Consensus serving as the basis for in World Bank conditionality on both project and bailout financing. Kim even told Vice (2015) that he advocated that the Bank be shut down at that time – but quickly added that now he was glad he failed.
Another reflection of Kim’s subsequent rethinking of politics, was his tweet two days before his Johannesburg speech: “Saddened by the passing of Pres. George HW Bush, a man of great character & courage. While at Dartmouth, I bestowed on him an honorary Dr of Laws degree. His work on the environment & commitment to global cooperation were only part of his profound legacy” (Kim tweet, 1 December 2018, In reality, Bush was an exceptionally belligerent warmonger and danger to nature: as the mid-1970s head of the US Central Intelligence Agency, as Vice President under Ronald Reagan and as President from 1981-93. The single highlight may have been Bush’s announcement at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit: “The American way of life is not up for negotiations” (Deen 2012). This perspective confirmed the US role in future climate summits, which can only be described by the word sabotage (Bond 2012).

Patrick Bond

is professor at the University of Johannesburg Department of Sociology, and co-editor of BRICS and Resistance in Africa (published by Zed Books, 2019).