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So, Are Brics ‘Sub-Imperialists’?


‘We reaffirm the character of the ANC as a disciplined force of the left, a multi-class mass movement and an internationalist movement with an anti-imperialist outlook.’ So said Jacob Zuma, orating to his masses at the year’s largest African National Congress celebration, in Durban on January 12. normal”>the position of a key nation.’ line-height:115%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
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Nearly half a century later, such insights appear prescient, in the wake of the rise of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (Brics) as an active alliance. By 2013 these five key nations encircling the traditional Triad (the US, European Union and Japan) were decisive collaborators with imperialism.

They advanced the cause of neoliberalism by reaffirming its global institutional power structures and driving overproductive and overconsumptive maldevelopment, and they colluded in destruction of not just the world environment – through prolific contributions to climate change – but in the sabotage of any potentially workable global-scale ecological regulation (favouring instead deepened commodification through emissions trading).

The Brics agenda of relegitimising neoliberalism not only reinforces North American power, of course. In each case, the Brics countries’ control of their hinterlands for the sake of regional capitalist hegemony was another impressive feature of sub-imperialism, especially in South Africa’s case. As Brazilian scholar Oliver Stuenkel remarked in 2012, ‘None of the Brics members enjoys meaningful support from its neighbours, and none has a mandate to represent its respective region. Quite to the contrary, their neighbours’ suspicion of Brics projects of regional hegemony is remarkably similar for all members.’ footnote”>The Economist in early 2009, requiring vast new foreign debt obligations to cover the hard currency required to facilitate the vast capital flight. South Africa cannot, thus, be described as ‘imperialist’ – it is simply retaining far little of the surplus.

Aside from lubricating world neoliberalism, hastening world eco-destruction, and serving as coordinator of hinterland looting, what are the other features of sub-imperialism that must be assessed, in a context of Washington’s ongoing hegemony? If a ‘new imperialism’ entails – as the City University of New York’s renowned Marxist scholar David Harvey line-height:115%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
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suggests – much greater recourse to ‘accumulation by dispossession’ and hence the appropriation of ‘non-capitalist’ aspects of life and environment by capitalism, then South Africa and the other Brics offer some of the most extreme sites of new sub-imperialism in the world today.

The older generation of arguments about South Africa’s ‘articulations of modes of production’ – i.e., migrant male workers from Bantustans providing ‘cheap labour’ thanks to black rural women’s unpaid reproduction of children, sick workers and retirees generally without state support – seems to apply even more these days, when it comes to notorious Chinese pass-laws or the expansion of the South African migrancy model much deeper into the region in the wake of apartheid (notwithstanding tragic xenophobic reactions from the local working class).

First, to make the case that sub-imperialism lubricates global neoliberalism in these various ways, and that within Brics South Africa joins the other ‘deputy sheriffs’ to keep regional law and order (e.g. in the Central African Republic, at the time of writing in early 2013), requires dispensing with naïve accounts of foreign policy that remain popular in the international relations field.

Some scholars argue that South Africa’s role is neither anti-imperialist nor sub-imperialist – that as a ‘Middle Power,’ Pretoria attempts to constructively ‘lead’ Africa while acting in the continent’s interests (Maxi Schoeman), line-height:115%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
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through ‘building strategic partnerships… in a constant effort to win over the confidence of fellow African states, and to convince the world community of its regional power status’ (Chris Landsberg), line-height:115%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
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thus seeking ‘non-hegemonic cooperation’ with other African countries (John Daniel et al). footnote”>Rising US Stakes in Africa:

line-height:150%;font-family:Symbol;mso-fareast-font-family:Symbol;mso-bidi-font-family:
Symbol”>·         political stabilisation of Sudan, whose oil was craved by Washington;

line-height:150%;font-family:Symbol;mso-fareast-font-family:Symbol;mso-bidi-font-family:
Symbol”>·         support for Africa’s decrepit capital markets, which could allegedly ‘jump start’ the Millennium Challenge Account, a new US AID mechanism;

line-height:150%;font-family:Symbol;mso-fareast-font-family:Symbol;mso-bidi-font-family:
Symbol”>·         more attention to energy, especially the ‘massive future earnings by Nigeria and Angola, among other key West African oil producers’;

line-height:150%;font-family:Symbol;mso-fareast-font-family:Symbol;mso-bidi-font-family:
Symbol”>·         promotion of wildlife conservation;

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Symbol”>·         increased ‘counter-terrorism’ efforts, which included ‘a Muslim outreach initiative’;

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Symbol”>·         expanded peace operations, transferred to tens of thousands of African troops thanks to new G8 funding; and more attention to AIDS.

On all but Sudan, South African co-operation was crucial for the US imperial agenda. However, after the US military’s humiliating 1993 ‘Black Hawk Down’ episode in Somalia, there was insufficient appetite at the Pentagon for direct troop deployment in Africa, and as a result, President Bill Clinton was compelled to apologise for standing idly by during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Instead, as Africa Command head Carter Ham explained in 2011, Washington ‘would eventually need an AfriCom that could undertake more traditional military operations… [although] not conducting operations – that’s for the Africans to do.’ line-height:115%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
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Likewise, the US Air University’s In late 2006, for example, when Bush wanted to invade Somalia to rid the country of its nascent Islamic Courts government, he called in Mbeki to assist with legitimating the idea, though it was ultimately carried out by Meles Zenawi’s Ethiopian army three weeks later. line-height:115%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
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That problem will haunt Pretoria in coming years, because like the political carving of African in Berlin in 1884-85, the Brics 2013 Durban summit has as its aim the continent’s economic carve-up, unburdened – now as then – by what would be derided as ‘Western’ concerns about democracy and human rights. Also invited were 16 African heads of state to serve as collaborators.

  • support favoured corporations’ extraction and land-grab strategies;
  • worsen Africa’s retail-driven deindustrialization (South Africa’s Shoprite and Makro – soon to be run by Walmart – are already notorious in many capital cities for importing even simple products that could be supplied locally);
  • revive failed projects such as Nepad; and
  • confirm the financing of both African land-grabbing and the extension of neo-colonial infrastructure through a new ‘Brics Bank,’ in spite of the damaging role of the Development Bank of Southern Africa in its immediate hinterland, following Washington’s script. line-height:115%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
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  • With this evidence, and more, can we determine whether the Brics are ‘anti-imperialist’ – or instead, ‘sub-imperialist,’ doing deputy-sheriff duty for global corporations and neoliberal ideologues, while controlling their own angry populaces as well as their hinterlands through a more formidable security apparatus? The eco-destructive, consumerist-centric, over-financialised, climate-frying maldevelopment model throughout the Brics works very well for corporate and parastatal profits, especially for Western capital, but is generating repeated crises for the majority of its people and for the planet.

    Hence the label sub-imperialist is tempting. During the 1970s, Marini argued that Brazil was ‘the best current manifestation of sub-imperialism,’ for three central reasons:

    Matters subsequently degenerated on all fronts. In addition to these criteria – regional economic extraction, ‘export of capital’ (always associated with subsequent imperialist politics) and internal corporate monopolization and financialisation – there are two additional roles for Brics regimes if they are genuinely sub-imperialist. One is ensuring regional geopolitical ‘stability’: for example, Brasilia’s hated army in Haiti and Pretoria’s deal-making in African hotspots like South Sudan, the Great Lakes and the Central African Republic for which $5 billion in corruption-riddled arms purchases serve as military back-up.

    The second is advancing the broader agenda of neoliberalism, so as to legitimate deepened market access. Evidence includes South Africa’s Nepad; the attempt by China, Brazil and India to revive the WTO; and Brazil’s sabotage of the left project within Venezuela’s ‘Bank of the South’ initiative. As Eric Toussaint remarked at a World Social Forum panel in 2009, ‘The definition of Brazil as a peripheral imperialist power is not dependent on which political party is in power. The word imperialism may seem excessive because it is associated with an aggressive military policy. But this is a narrow perception of imperialism.’