The Johannesburg BRICS Summit’s unrealistic hype
First published at Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.
Before the August 22–24 summit in Johannesburg raised expectations for a new counterbalancing force in global politics — and struck fear into many Western elites’ hearts and minds — at least five factors reduced the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) bloc to a zone of acrimonious mediocrity. However, conditions have changed over the past year, and talk of a “BRICS+” with new members and a “de-dollarization” agenda are raising the profile of this network to an unprecedented — and unrealistic — level.
Emerging from a period in which internal contradictions appeared to cause “spalling” — in which the BRICS wall came close to toppling — it is useful to recall what was going wrong:
- First, three years of COVID-19 prevented BRICS leaders from having in-person summits or convening the hundreds of specialist bureaucrat, business, academic and civil society gatherings that had featured in the bloc’s ecosystem.
- Second, from 2019–22, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazilian government retarded the bloc’s progress and wrecked its cohesion, due to his right-wing extremism and pro-Western alignment — e.g. on the critical matter of the South gaining patent waivers for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. The waivers represented a major World Trade Organization (WTO) reform proposal, and though they were vetoed mainly by Europeans on behalf of their drug industries in 2021–22, Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson must have appreciated Bolsonaro’s joining the handful of leaders rejecting repeated appeals by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who spoke for more than 100 countries when demanding vital pharmaceutical products be considered “global public goods”.
- Third, Sino-Indian turf disputes regularly flared up high in the Himalayas, reflecting a lack of borderline resolution dating to the early 1960s, which lead to the death of scores of troops in hand-to-hand combat in 2020. There is no end in sight to military skirmishes over the mountainside land and, — due to excessive Chinese dam-building, — over southern-flowing river sources. The other extended site of conflict stretches west to Pakistan from Kashmir, where local resistance continues against Delhi’s strict control and repression against muslim minorities, as well as Beijing’s desire to control Kashmiris in China. Further west, Beijing is funding USD 65 billion worth of corridor infrastructure from Pakistan’s Gwadar port to western China, which it considers increasingly vital due to mercantile vulnerabilities in the Straight of Malacca, and in order to gain faster Belt and Road Initiative access to oil imports from the Persian Gulf. But this level of economic commitment to India’s primary enemy state — including an area of contested sovereignty within Pakistan — infuriates authorities in Delhi, who in turn have repeatedly shut down Chinese corporations’ own investments and exhibited extreme levels of nationalist Sinophobia.
- Fourth, Vladimir Putin’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine was not just catastrophic in local terms, but also upended global food and energy markets, creating enormous political push-and-pull pressures across the world. Putin nearly caused a constitutional crisis in South Africa due to the prospect of the local courts compelling Ramaphosa to enforce an International Criminal Court arrest warrant (for kidnapping tens of thousands of Ukrainian children), were Putin to arrive in person at the 2023 Johannesburg summit. Ramaphosa beseeched the Russian leader to attend the summit virtually, as a side deal component of the South African’s leadership of an ineffectual Kiev-Moscow peace mission by several African leaders in June 2023. Ramaphosa also publicly requested that the Russian leader restore sea access to Ukrainian exports responsible for nearly 10% of the world’s grain supply, but Putin ignored that appeal, instead offering free supplies of his own grain to several impoverished countries whose leaders attended the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg in late July.
- Fifth, there were important ruptures within several BRICS’ leaderships, what with the narrow electoral victory of Brazilian President Lula da Silva over Bolsonaro and the failed attempt by the latter’s supporters to carry out a January 2023 insurrection; the June 2023 mutiny by Putin’s former close ally Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group of mercenaries; the mysterious disappearance of Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang in July amidst swirling rumours about an affair with a British spy or simply ineffectual performance; and in South Africa, Ramaphosa’s near-resignation in December 2022 due to a damning inquiry into personal corruption. While Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Modi and Putin appear to have consolidated their personal power, the two weaker BRICS are unstable: Lula faces a hostile Bolsonarite-dominated Congress and relies upon self-crippling alliances with neoliberals atop his own government; while Ramaphosa’s own financial corruption case and the unreliability of his deputy president (not to mention his predecessor’s brief jailing on 12 August — on charges related to a French arms dealer’s bribes — followed by an immediate pardon), as well as widespread electricity blackouts, will probably result in his party losing majority status and stitching together a coalition government after the mid-2024 election.
Yet in spite of the chaos created in the process, the BRICS’ three primary-product exporting economies — Brazil, Russia and South Africa — performed better than expected from mid-2020 after the main lock-down shock, as mineral and fossil fuel prices first crashed but then soared to record levels, and again from March 2022 after Putin’s invasion, when commodity prices rose even higher for at least a few more months.
Even Russia could therefore bounce back surprisingly quickly from intense Western financial sanctions and the seizure of more than $600 billion in overseas assets belonging to the state and oligarchs — sanctions which sent strong messages to formerly pro-Western tyrants especially in the Middle East, that their Western assets were not safe either.
Indeed the financial-punishment overreach by US finance minister Janet Yellen in March 2022 is a major reason for so many BRICS+ candidates now wanting to join a future de-dollarized bloc. They all observe the volatility of political relations with a US State Department that often flip-flops, and not only because the 2017–20 “paleo-conservative” Make America Great Again ideology of Donald Trump was replaced with “neo-conservative” foreign policy in which “democratic” ideals and economic neoliberalism are imposed, if necessary, by force.
In addition to the possible prospect of Trump returning to power in early 2025, a general dilemma for tyrants is that Washington sometimes installs and sometimes replaces client-regime leaders without apparent logic. While that has been a long-standing practice, it now appears more complex due to the power of financial sanctions.
Particularly revealing was the experience Saudi Arabia had, first in 2020 as one of US presidential candidate Joe Biden’s main foreign-policy rhetorical targets (as a “pariah”), given Riyadh’s bone-saw execution of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. In early 2021 Biden announced the Saudi war on Yemen must cease, but shifted tack and went quiet within a year. And as energy prices soared in mid-2022, Biden had changed tack and personally visited Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”) to beg Riyadh to raise oil output (to lower prices), which the Saudi leader refused.
Indeed by early 2023, in another sign of clear disrespect for Washington, Riyadh had not only made a preliminary peace deal with Iran, brokered by China, but began a “petro-yuan” trading system to undermine dollar hegemony. In early August, Washington clumsily attempted to reverse that particularly important de-dollarisation with a package that also included Trump-era Abraham Accord status — “normalizing” Israeli-Saudi ties similar to the UAE in 2020 — which the Saudi leader put on hold until after dust settles at the BRICS summit and the bloc’s newest members are chosen.
With a new BRICS+ beginning to take shape, the most striking features of the candidates now being considered, are their extreme carbon intensity and tyrannical political character, personified by MBS. The full list of first-round candidates to join BRICS, named in early August, by South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor, are Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Honduras, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Morocco, Nigeria, State of Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela and Vietnam.
It is a hodgepodge with no discernable ideology, but abounding with anti-social, anti-ecological, and financially dollar-inoculated self-interests:
- The big prizes for China and Russia, driving the expansion, would be Saudi Arabia and Iran. If all 23 new candidates are agreed upon, the 28 BRICS+ countries can be assessed in terms of their relatively pro-Putin leaning (voting against United Nations withdrawal resolutions) or neutral stance (abstaining on the votes, as did South Africa), versus those favouring Ukraine:
- In the latter camp are 14 candidate countries in addition to Brazil: Argentina, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, Honduras, Indonesia, Kuwait, Morocco, Nigeria, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Thailand and the UAE.
- In contrast, there are 13 BRICS and BRICS+ candidate governments that were either against or abstained from the February 2023 resolution: Algeria, Belarus, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, South Africa, Venezuela and Vietnam.
- Hence, from a ratio of four to one in the against-or-abstaining group under the present BRICS, the ratio would potentially switch from 13 to 15.
- As for what might be considered genuine, indisputable democracies, there are really only Argentina, Bolivia and Honduras, joining Brazil and South Africa. For good reason, there has been traditional — at least 21st-century — left solidarity with BRICS+ candidates Bolivia, Cuba, Palestine, and Venezuela, though the latter has waned in progressive values over the decade since Hugo Chavez’s death, and of course there also remains left nostalgia for the 1960s-era anti-colonial movements of Algeria and Vietnam.
- Of concern, as well, are the reactionary regimes that long toiled within the Western sphere of influence: Indonesia, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and the UAE. Some of their shifts from the West to BRICS allegiances are, in each case, reversible depending upon the geopolitical conjuncture.
In the expansion process, standard talk-left walk-right diplomacy can be expected. As Pandor committed, “I certainly would guard against any criteria for expansion that would lead us down a path where we contribute to increasing conflict in the global community or in any part of the world.”
Retreat from multilateral reform — as is the BRICS’ sub-imperial duty
Given the unstable alliances and motley collection of candidate members, neither the existing BRICS nor a BRICS+ bloc can claim momentum towards the fairer world system they often refer to. For example, BRICS summit statements often articulate aspirations for multilateral reform, as well as potential arrangements for institutional, medical, and financial collaborations that would not rely upon the West. But the results are unsatisfying.
One obvious case was pandemic vaccine development, of vital importance in 2020-22, when COVID-19 killed between 7 million (official) and 31 million people, depending upon “excess death” estimates (which in India, Brazil, and South Africa numbered at least three times the official death toll). And yet while the 2018 Johannesburg Summit promised a BRICS vaccine centre based in that city, but it only materialized in a tokenistic, virtual mode in March 2022. Questions remained about the efficacy of Chinese and Russian vaccines in comparison to the West’s mRNA technology (South Africa even disallowed Sputnik because of dangers for people living with HIV/AIDS).
Another sub-imperial duty is to abide by international financial arrangements. Hence, further false hopes for genuine BRICS alternatives to multilateral economic power arose from the International Monetary Fund’s abuse of poor countries’ sovereignty and imposition of neoliberalism, austerity and privatization dogmas — without genuine BRICS opposition:
- The $100 billion Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) was meant to offer a back-up, but its 2014 design actually empowered the IMF by compelling BRICS borrowers that wanted to access more than 30% of their borrowing quota (e.g. in South Africa’s case $3 billion) to first sign up to an IMF structural adjustment programme, thus amplifying Washington’s financial leverage.
- When in 2020, the BRICS finance minister facing greatest vulnerability, South Africa’s Tito Mboweni, believed that he needed a $4.3 billion loan to survive the COVID-19 economic crash, he went to the IMF, not the CRA — so that particular “alternative” was not only falsely advertised, but only exists on paper.
- Even as the BRICS purchased greater voting power at the IMF and World Bank, reaching nearly 15% by the late 2010s (at the expense of poorer countries like Nigeria and Venezuela whose voting share plummeted more than 40% each), the two institutions’ top leaders are still appointed by European and US governments, respectively. BRICS politicians as well as directors at the Bretton Woods Institutions are content to occasionally complain, but since 2012 they have failed to even offer alternative IMF managing director or World Bank presidential candidates.
- The continual “talk left, walk right” BRICS tendencies to complain about Western imperialist power, but do nothing to change the rules of the neoliberal multilateral order — and generally welcome IMF and World Bank missions (and in South Africa’s case, billions of dollars worth of new loans).
- In short, after a decade in which — since the Durban 2013 BRICS summit — international development finance has been high atop the leaders’ agenda, the global-economic Washington Consensus philosophy hasn’t changed, nor have the Bretton Woods Institutions’ predatory lending practices. Those ecologically- and socially-destructive — and corrupt — practices are also evident in the main BRICS accomplishment, the New Development Bank (NDB), which like the notional CRA, quickly became an official ally of the World Bank.
Likewise, with the appointment of former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff as president of the BRICS NDB on 26 July 2023, it was a sign of the times that, just after meeting Putin, she tweeted, “The NDB reiterated that it is not planning new projects in Russia and operates in compliance with applicable restrictions on international financial and capital markets. Any speculations on such a matter are unfounded.” She also committed to merely a 30% local-currency loan portfolio by 2030, an extremely conservative target in spite of the damage done by hard-currency loans.
There had been enormous hype about the potential to shift out of the dollar’s hegemony, for good reasons:
- The US Federal Reserve had supported Richard Nixon’s 1971-73 destruction of the Bretton Woods System’s $35/gold ounce deal (dating to 1944) through a $80 billion default on that obligation, with the highest, fastest interest rate increases to end US-sourced inflation in 1979, thus causing the Third World Debt Crisis that impoverished billions of people.
- In the 1990s the Fed engaged in dangerous financial deregulation and when that led to real estate markets and many major creditors, speculators and insurers imploding in 2007–08, the US government’s 2008–09 bailouts were followed by 2009–13 Quantitative Easing (QE, representing further bailouts).
- After the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns, the Fed again engaged in QE but then in early 2022 ended it with a series of painful interest rate increases.
By early 2023 critics of dollar overextension noted that two of the US government’s three largest-ever bankruptcies hit in early 2023. In February, ebullient Brazilian journalist Pepe Escobar entitled a popular tweet, “BRICS IT UP, BABY” because “If China, Russia and India agree on a gold-backed currency, that’s the END of the fiat dollar… A new currency would lead to the US current account deficit — $18 trillion — crashing the dollar.”
But such hype was unrealistic, so in June, in the immediate wake of a BRICS foreign ministers gathering, the visions of monetary rebellion were squelched by the lead South African diplomat, Anil Sooklal, who said, “We have never spoken about de-dollarization. What we have done, which is nothing new, we signed an agreement several years ago, an interbank agreement, paving the way to trade in our local currencies.” But the latter is tough going, as a result of enormous trade imbalances within the BRICS, plus vigorous Chinese and Indian exchange controls that make trade-revenue repatriation difficult.
Hence, Escobar predicted more soberly in early August, “The BRICS are not going to announce a new currency in South Africa, first of all because they haven’t even studied the details. It’s impossible. Second, because you cannot start a new currency just like that. It’s a process that could take as long as ten years. What they are doing and they’re going to start improving on, is trade settlements using their own BRICS-member currencies, and expand it to BRICS+.”
Escobar suggested it could take “even 10 years to, maybe, a new currency which is going to be basically a trade settlement currency and not a currency like, for instance, the Euro or the British pound. Something completely different: a trade settlement mechanism capable of bypassing the US dollar ecosystem which, you know, it’s all over the world it’s very hard to escape it.”
Likewise, Vijay Prashad of the Delhi-based Tricontinental Institute admitted to a seminar of the University of Johannesburg in August: “Nobody right now wants to supplant the dollar. I asked people in the People’s Bank of China, ‘will the renminbi supplant the dollar?’ They’re not going to do it. Why? Because the Chinese pride themselves on having capital controls and control over their currency.” He asked, “Are we going to enter a phase where we have a basket of currencies? You know, maybe that’s it, that’s a long time to come, so people who are excited online about dedollarization should calm down.”
The BRICS’ reticence to fight imperialism’s core basis of financial power should have come as no surprise, because in case after case, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — starting in 2009 at the Copenhagen summit where Barack Obama joined Lula, Wen Jiabao, Manhoman Singh and Jacob Zuma for a status quo-oriented deal that they then imposed on everyone else — the BRICS spent the 2010s playing into and not rebelling against, the so-called Washington-Brussels-London-Tokyo ‘unipolar’ order.
From sub-Imperialism to inter-imperialism?
The G20, to be hosted by Modi in Delhi on 9–10 September, is the most logical site for this fusion. In the spirit of Brazilian dependency theorist Ruy Mauro Marini, the fusion should be understood as the sub-imperial powers’ “antagonistic cooperation” with the overarching control of the US/EU/UK/Japan+multilaterals. Antagonisms or not, the G20 members agreed once the body was launched in late 2008, to engage in coordinated bailouts of shaky international financial markets.
But the roots of the imperial/sub-imperial fusion are to be found in the 1990s consolidation of the neoliberal policy project. Since then the West’s control of multilateral financiers, the WTO and UNFCCC have well served not only their but also the BRICS’ largest corporations. Such a sub-imperial status, Marini suggested in 1972 when describing Brazil, represents “the form which dependent capitalism assumes upon reaching the stage of monopolies and finance capital”.
To illustrate, in a posthumous 2019 book, Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin was scathing about South Africa, which, “freed from odious apartheid, is now confronted with a truly formidable challenge: how to go beyond the facade of multiracial democracy to transform society profoundly? The choices of the ANC government have, up to now, evaded the question and, as a result, nothing has changed. South Africa’s sub-imperialist role has been reinforced, still dominated as it is by the Anglo-American mining monopolies.”
Back in 2015, Amin had already penned an essay on “Contemporary Imperialism”, in which he offered this metaphor: “The ongoing offensive of United States/Europe/Japan collective imperialism against all the peoples of the South walks on two legs: the economic leg – globalized neoliberalism forced as the exclusive possible economic policy; and the political leg – continuous interventions including preemptive wars against those who reject imperialist interventions. In response, some countries of the South, such as the BRICS, at best walk on only one leg: they reject the geopolitics of imperialism but accept economic neoliberalism.”
BRICS countries — led by China — promoted corporate power within the multilateral system that they were joining and increasingly financing, and in the process engaged in more profitable predatory extractivism when sourcing raw materials from poor countries. Pursuing this agenda, their so-called ‘going out’ displacement of overaccumulated capital also entailed, as David Harvey (as early as 2003) had remarked, becoming imperialism’s “competitors on the world stage. What might be called ‘sub-imperialisms’ arose… Each developing centre of capital accumulation sought out systematic spatio-temporal fixes for its own surplus capital by defining territorial spheres of influence.”
As for China in Latin America, Simon Rodriguez Porras and Miguel Sorans from Venezuela’s left opposition complained that “The relationship of Chavism with Chinese sub-imperialism would acquire characteristics of true submission. Not only was participation in joint ventures given to Chinese companies, a large external debt was also acquired with China, part of it through future oil sales, to finance infrastructure works contracted with Chinese companies, and also the import of Chinese products.”
Still, Prashad is correct to demand “a great deal more translation into our current period to assess whether the BRICS states — with their separate tempos — are sub-imperial in Marini’s sense. They are certainly not imperialist states.”
They are not yet, to be sure, largely because the Pentagon’s 800 foreign bases and nearly $900 billion in annual spending have no military competitor, even if Russia has more nuclear weapons. But two other critical scholars, Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros, pointed out in 2011 the BRICS’ separate and very diverse material realities: “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 ‘sub-imperialism’.”
Cases of military schizophrenia include
- Brazil’s Lula deploying 36,000 of his troops to Haiti on behalf of the US and France, suppressing local dissent from 2004–17;
- Russia’s desire, expressed by Putin to US president Bill Clinton in 2000, to join NATO — and the current crop of Wagner mercenaries’ increasingly important role in African natural-resource resource looting in the Sahel region and Central Africa, which amplifies these countries’ ongoing contributions to global value chains (the way Wagner also unsuccessfully attempted in Mozambique in 2019 on behalf of TotalEnergies);
- India’s membership in a “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” with the US, Japan and Australia, against China; or
- South Africa’s 2021 army deployment to protect ‘Blood Methane’ investments by TotalEnergies and ExxonMobil in northern Mozambique against Islamic-fundamentalist insurgency, in a manner reminiscent of roles — as gendarme for resource extraction — that the same army played in the Central African Republic in 2013 and subsequently in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The situation is fluid, because as Justin Podur argued recently in Black Agenda Report, while “each sub-imperialist is a special case, in Africa, South Africa has been analyzed as a sub-imperialist…,” neither China nor Russia “fit the sub-imperialist mold. They may exercise hegemony — or contest it — in their regions, but they do not do so under the umbrella of US hegemony.”
True, but while political forces remain in flux as various crises continue to unhinge prior verities, it can be argued that China has many sub-imperial tendencies of super-exploitation (through the hukou migrant labour system), collaboration with Western-dominated, neoliberal multilaterals and regional expansion. And the Chinese economy remains beset by overaccumulated capital in need of a spatial fix.
So while Beijing is not (as Prashad notes) an “imperialist” power today by most measurements, nevertheless Xi in 2017 did firmly signal his government’s desire to pick up the corporate-expansion baton passed along at the World Economic Forum: “Economic globalization has powered global growth and facilitated movement of goods and capital, advances in science, technology and civilisation, and interactions among peoples.”
The Russian case is certainly more difficult to characterize, mainly because of the rogue character of sub-imperialism as practiced by Putin. His invasion of Ukraine broke the rules of how far a regional gendarme was typically allowed to roam (though he had gotten away with it in Crimea eight years earlier), as did his default on foreign debt in June 2022.
On the latter point, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov’s firmly-expressed case is that Russia wants to repay debt: “The current situation has nothing whatsoever in common with the situation in 1998, when Russia did not have enough means to cover its debts. Now there is money and there is also the readiness to pay.” In May 2023 Siluanov attempted to restore creditworthiness through Eurobond debt repayments in spite of Western sanctions.
And as Putin would regularly point out, the imperial powers also went rogue in late February 2022 by quickly stealing $650 billion of Russian central bank and oligarch funds carelessly left in Western banks (in violation of rudimentary property rights) and by cutting Russia out of the interbank payment system. Moreover, earlier rogue imperial behavior included the unnecessary eastward expansion of NATO against promises made by early-1990s Western leaders to Russian counterparts, and Washington’s failure to abide by the Minsk Accord when all other parties were willing.
The double burden of imperialism and sub-imperialism
In this context, could the BRICS 22–24 August 2023 summit in Johannesburg be the “mega-game-changing” moment that Escobar hopes for, given BRICS+ expansion plans? And if so, in what direction?
All the signposts point in an ominous direction. In Open Veins of Latin America, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano described how, against Paraguay, the ruling elites of Brazil and Argentina “took turns since 1870 enjoying the fruits of the plunder. But they have their own crosses to bear from the imperialist power of the moment. Paraguay has the double burden of imperialism and sub-imperialism.”
And so do the rest of us: as Galeano remarked, “Sub-imperialism has a thousand faces.” The BRICS’ two-faced approach — when confronted by imperialism’s political and economic legs, as Amin put it — will continue to baffle many who believe the subimperialist leaders when they are talking left, and are blinded to seeing them when walking right.
The only hope remains the expansion of brave vibrant social movements that have emerged in a thousand struggles within and around the BRICS+ countries in recent years, including but not limited to from Brazil’s landless, to Russian anti-war activists, to India’s diverse people’s movements, to China’s prolific social-justice protesters along with Uyghers, Tibetans and Hong Kong democrats facing repression, to South Africa’s still-militant workers, shack-dwellers, public-health advocates and students.
And stir in new BRICS+ inspirations: Algerian progressives reviving the Arab Spring, Argentine anti-debt activists, Bolivia’s indigenous and environmental communities, Egyptian human rights advocates, Honduran progressives, Iranian women, Kazakh anti-authoritarians, Nigerian environmentalists, anti-apartheid Palestinians, Senegalese democrats, and many more… all desiring a world without exploitation, oppression, or planetary suicide.
Those opposed to imperial and sub-imperial power also have a thousand angry faces, and must gain muscles to match.
Patrick Bond is a distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.