Recently South Africa celebrated the Tenth BRICS Summit, an opportunity for the leaders of four major manufacturing countries outside the G7 to enjoy a holiday at the state’s expense at a plush hotel in Sandton, while the leader of the host country had a chance to pretend that the Summit was something worth doing, and the American-dominated local media had a chance either to circle at Ramaphosa’s haemorrhoid vein like horse-leeches, or to shout American-sponsored ooga-booga rubbish about the Yellow Peril and the menace of Ernst Stavros Putin.
And, of course, there were protests. Some were more or less sensible, like the Muslim protest against the anti-Muslim policies of the vicious fundamentalist Indian Prime Minister Modi. Some were unknowable, like the protests against kibitzing Turkish President Erdogan. (Were they justly protesting against his oppressive rule, or against his vicious prejudice against Kurds, or were they American-sponsored ooga-booga rubbish about Erdogan’s successful pushback against the attempted American coup and his decision to abandon the American attempt to overthrow the Syrian government?) And then there was the SAFTU protest against BRICS existing at all. Since this was the only one purporting to come from the left, this is the only one really worth paying attention to for its own sake.
What was the protest about? It relates closely to the South African Trotskyite campaign against BRICS, spearheaded by Patrick Bond and his tea-girl Jane Duncan, both with lucrative Gauteng university gigs and who essentially say the same things. SAFTU’s political advisers are all Trotskyites and generally acolytes of Bond (or whoever is behind him). Their line on BRICS, therefore, is that it should not be supported or endorsed because it is a front-organisation for imperialism and plutocracy. To this Greenpeace, which is run by an acolyte of South African Trotskyism, adds that BRICS is a plot to impose fossil-fuel electricity on the world.
Is this true? The BRICS countries all espouse capitalism, and they are all powerful relative to many or all of their neighbours. As capitalist countries they are plutocratic countries, since capitalists inevitably have political power, and as strong countries they are imperialist countries in the sense that they are trying to build up their influence over their neighbours. But the problem with this analysis is that every country in the world at the moment is capitalist; even Cuba has renounced communism. On the grounds which SAFTU puts forward, it would be as easy to denounce Lesotho or Nepal as to denounce the BRICS countries. So in an important sense, the Bond line is simply a cheap shot of abuse employed by exploiting confusion over Marxist terminology.
Let’s, however, be a little more specific. Firstly, what is BRICS? It’s basically a salon des refúses. In the late 1990s the West wouldn’t allow China or Russia in their economic club, and also alienated both countries by their attack on Serbia (in the case of the Chinese by actually bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade). So that stimulated the two to get together, which was beneficial for both, especially after the American puppet Yeltsin died of alcoholic complications, because China had lots of money and Russia had lots of technology left over from the collapse of the USSR, and they both had an interest in resisting American imperialism in their neighbourhoods, which overlapped in the Far East and Central Asia.
But obviously working together wasn’t enough after the Bush regime took over and made it clear that American power would be used to prop up the global imperialist system without any of the concealments which the Clinton administration had tried to set up. That was potentially humiliating for the RC alliance, so they sought out allies. Fortunately, at the time India and Brazil had nominally leftist governments — very nominally in the case of the Indian Congress Alliance — and they were amenable to getting together with Russia and China so long as it didn’t close the door on keeping their American connections. That was the BRIC; meanwhile the ANC in South Africa had always had good relations with Russia, and cultivated friendly relations with China which was becoming a major mineral consumer, so joining in and forming BRICS made a lot of economic and political sense.
The point about BRICS is that it is based on three continents which aren’t North America or Europe, and therefore has the potential to mobilise a coalition against the NATO/European Union/British Dominions coalition which makes most of the trouble in the world today. However, it’s mostly an economic cooperation bloc, with its own development bank to facilitate activities in Latin America, Asia and Africa where most of the world’s economic action is taking place. It even wants its own investment ratings agency, which is mainly a propaganda stunt (since the BRICS bank has its own capacity for identifying profitable investments) to undermine the absurd and obscene power of the American-controlled investment ratings agencies.
All this means that BRICS is very similar to — and essentially modelled on — the international financial agency set up by the U.S. and its satellites to police global inequality and channel wealth into the pockets of the elite. That seems to confirm the suspicions of SAFTU and the Trotskyites.
Actually, though, it doesn’t. BRICS isn’t a centralised global empire along the lines of the United States. It’s basically a club for countries which would rather get on with their own development and not be bullied by the United States.
Russia certainly wants to have strong influence over its neighbours, and neighbours who behave in a hostile fashion in alliance with the United States, like Ukraine and Georgia, tend to get hammered — but neighbours who aren’t hostile, even when they’re allied with the United States, don’t get hammered. The Russians didn’t invade Armenia when that country threw out its President who had been schmoozing with the Russians — they just went and schmoozed with the new President.
China certainly wants to have control over the traditional Chinese imperial domains as of about 1800, and also wants to have strong influence over its neighbours and reliable access to natural resources across the world. That’s imperialism by some definitions, but it’s a long way away from colonialism. The Chinese aren’t occupying the planet, nor are they waving nuclear weapons at anyone who disagrees with them, nor do Chinese gunboats sail to surround any nation-state which declares itself independent of Chinese control.
As for India and Brazil — we can leave South Africa out of the equation since they aren’t an independent state and don’t really have any influence over the BRICS agenda, they’re just the token black sitting in the front office — they just want to get on with their own affairs and would like to have good political and economic relations with America and China and Russia. If the latter two want them to belong to BRICS, so long as they can get something out of it, well and good. The idea that they automatically must do whatever China or Russia tell them is ridiculous as well as supported by no evidence.
So — why waste time on attacking BRICS? Obviously the BRICS countries deserve criticism for their behaviour, but they do not deserve any special criticism. The Greenpeace criticism, for instance, ignores the obvious fact that China is the world’s largest manufacturer and employer of renewable energy systems. Criticism of India for its ill-treatment of minorities in the service of the extractive industry is just — but the same thing happens in North America, South America, Africa and Australia. If we want to protest against such things, we don’t have to wait for the BRICS conference — we can all traipse off to the Botswanan or Canadian Embassies.
The specific critique of the BRICS countries by the South African Trotskyites is particularly interesting. The critique of South Africa, naturally, comes from themselves, but the critique of India comes from Arundhati Roy and her chums in the Indian far left. Meanwhile, the critique of Brazil seems to come from the Workers’ Party there. (This is a bit odd, because the South African Trotskyites fell over themselves to proclaim that the coup against the Workers’ Party government was nothing to make a fuss about — and of course the current Brazilian government, like the Ramaphosa and Modi governments, is hardly a bedrock sympathiser of whatever BRICS stands for.)
But it’s when you get to the Eurasian heartland of BRICS that you find something interesting. The criticisms of China and Russia are straight outta Wall Street and Foggy Bottom. Instead of specific complaints like the Indian military occupation of Kashmir or the Brazilian jailing of President Lula, you get flabby stuff about worker rights and military aggression relating directly to the legitimation of U.S. military and economic campaigns against China and Russia, campaigns which specifically serve U.S. imperialism and thus exemplify the problem which BRICS was set up to deal with.
This strongly suggests that the South African left’s problem with BRICS is not simply that it exists, or that it is “sub-imperialist” (as Bond discovered in a memorable misrepresentation of Luxemburg’s theorising). The problem is that it challenges U.S. imperialism, and the specific campaign against BRICS is therefore a campaign against resistance to imperialism. On one hand, the “sub-imperialist” pretense is a claim that supporting BRICS is not actually anti-imperialist because China and Russia are secretly working for America and serving the Washington Consensus, and on the other hand, American propaganda is employed to proclaim that, anyway, the core of BRICS is a menace to our way of life and we must all band together against it in support of Gott und Vaterland. It’s about the most bizarre employment of Trotskyism that’s been seen since South African Trotskyites banded together to support Jacob Zuma.
But it’s also a clear indication of how the left has corrupted itself into acting against its own interests. Obviously, BRICS is not an “emancipatory project” (as the former Bond shoepolisher Richard Pithouse put it) if by “emancipation” you mean freeing the workers from the capitalist yoke, but it is certainly a project aimed at emancipating nation-states from U.S. imperialism, which is the current global problem, and also at emancipating governments from neoliberal strangulation — and these are valuable projects even if they won’t bring the millennium. Misrepresenting BRICS by pretending that it has claimed to be a revolutionary transformative movement, which it has never done, is naturally a part of the reactionary propaganda which the left is serving. As such, the left is allowing itself to be used by those who have destroyed it, as if in a kind of Stockholm syndrome, or a masochistic desire to be beaten some more.
Or maybe they’re just being paid by the CIA. Take your choice.