From Bandung to BRICs

Vijay Prashad’s Poorer Nations asks whether the Global South can pose a credible alternative to neoliberal development.

Factory fires that kill hundreds of workers toiling over t-shirts. Government-imposed austerity programs that make fuel and food unaffordable for the barely alive. International trade regulations that render small farmers in tiny nations unable to compete. Innumerable, desperate vagaries of an international system dominated by the rich and powerful nations. Amid these tales of haplessness, in contexts as diverse as Dhaka and Delhi and São Paolo, finding hope, let alone common ground, is no easy task.

It is refreshing, then, that Vijay Prashad’s The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South begins with a moment of global alliance of a different kind. It took place in 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia, when the world’s poorer nations, galvanized by “the failures of capitalist mal-development” and led by the world’s wealthy nations, got together and “looked for the first time to each other for another agenda.” It was through this gathering that what Prashad calls the “Third World Project” was born.

Its agenda was centered around a loose set of goals crucial to the progress of what were becoming known as underdeveloped countries. The first was peace, specifically cooperation against the arms races of Western nations that imposed crippling defense demands on poor countries, stymieing their development. The second was bread, which implied that the way forward for developing countries would be to confront “the legacy of colonial economy with the advantages seized by Atlantic powers” as well as the “trade rules drawn up to benefit those historical and not comparative advantages.” The third and final demand was justice, based on the idea that the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement — Nehru of India, Nasser of Egypt, and Sukarno of Indonesia — all realized that none of their interests could be forwarded without a more democratic international order.

So successful was this show of force from the globally undermined nations that the Atlantic powers, at whom it was directed, began to squirm. In subsequent chapters, Prashad outlines just how concertedly Atlantic powers resisted the Third World Project. At the height of the Project’s momentum, the Atlantic powers formed the G-7, and so began a systematic undermining. One instance was the response to the results of the Brandt Report, an investigation commissioned by countries of the Global North and South to tackle the failure of development dialogues between the world’s haves and have-nots. At a meeting in Cancún, President Reagan hit hard against any overtures to equalize the international economic arena. He warned developing countries not to “mistake compassion for development,” and described the agenda of equalization as a myth, operating on the premise that “massive transfers of wealth will somehow produce new well-being.” Together, Reagan and Thatcher eviscerated the Brandt Report’s equalizing objectives as “unrealistic,” and reiterated a world order in which the mechanisms of global trade and conflict would continue to be controlled by the Global North. Interventions in the Global South would not occur from a place of equality but would be packaged henceforth as the benevolent overtures of the strong helping the weak. In the opinion of German statesman Willy Brandt, who wrote the report, “the North-South summit in Cancún led nowhere,” but Prashad identifies its failure as containing the seeds of a new dispensation that we now call neoliberalism.

Thankfully, the story does not end at this despondent moment of Reagan-Thatcher dominance. Prashad unearths the intellectual origins of resistance to neoliberalism, beginning with the South Commission Report prepared by former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere in August 1990. Neoliberalism appealed to the Global North, Prashad explains, because it “appears to be a discourse of equal opportunity (innovation and enterprise by anyone against the regimented authority of the state) but which of course has very divergent effects since it has to operate in social conditions that are highly unequal.”

Unsurprisingly, the South Commission’s exposé of neoliberalism was again met with hostility from the countries of the North, which criticized it as a dirge by poor countries uninterested in taking responsibility for the state of their internal economies and for “wrong domestic policies.” The UK pushed for even further trade liberalization, saying that it would invest more in the South only if the South promised to “respect intellectual property and streamline its inefficient economies.” On the other end, Cuban president Fidel Castro also criticized the report as promoting the idea that the market, not powerful institutions, made choices.

Criticized for going either too far or not far enough, the South Commission nevertheless did manage to resurrect the idea of South-South cooperation. The result, in a very loose sense, was the emergence of the BRIC conglomeration. It was not the end of neoliberalism but rather the beginning of a “neoliberalism with Southern characteristics.” For those who believe that all transnational alignments, including those created in opposition to the existing dominance of the Atlantic nations, it was not much cause for victory. For those like Prashad, who believe in more qualified, circumscribed progress led by even the barest form of South unification against the North, there was some cause for hope.

In recent years, transnational human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have recognized the increasing irrelevance of the New York-London-Geneva triangle of global policymaking on human rights, focusing instead on “moving closer to the ground.” The inability of North-led initiatives to gain global currency thus extends beyond the ambit of economic inequalities to the notion that transnational cooperation requires new leaders less tainted by the agendas and legacies of colonialism.

The BRIC countries, for all their promise, do not yet possess an institutional framework; while challenging existing North-led transnational alignments, they also continue to mimic them. The lack of a military platform in the literal sense of an operating base or a mutual defense pact undercuts their challenge to US-NATO dominance. Finally, they do not have a stated ideology other than the shared detestation of Northern dominance.

Any and all of these shortcomings could doom any potential that the BRICs may be seen to possess. Can a repackaged neoliberalism with Southern characteristics ignore the duplicities and inequities of the original? Furthermore, can the reticent bare-bones economic basis of cooperation that currently binds BRIC countries together on the basis of collective misgivings against North countries really be the basis of meaningful resistance against North policies? There are many questions and few answers. Perhaps acknowledging this, Prashad sees the future of the BRICs as nuanced and vacillating, “sometimes motivated by a desire to retreat to the past, sometimes by a desire to seek a future social order moored in human history but not imprisoned by it.”

In connecting the emergence of the BRICs to the failure of the Third World Project, Prashad takes a crucial intellectual leap, delineating in detail just how cooperation among wealthy countries mixes with the attractive duplicity of neoliberalism to keep poorer countries indebted and unable to compete globally. Histories, as we know, are often penned by the dominant and the victorious, and the task of creating one for the poorer nations provided a recognition of the reality of their struggles that is hard to find in the literature of economic history. In this sense, Prashad’s history of the BRICs can be viewed as a genealogical endeavor, outlining the dynamics of power that have created and also threaten an alliance based on resistance to the powerful and yet ultimately defined by its rules. The BRICs, so much in opposition to the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, still seek to control those very institutions. No guarantees exist that if such a rout were ever accomplished, the BRICs would not be easily transformed into a new and just as toxic sub-imperialism, just as or even more domineering to smaller states than the existing imperialist core.

Alternative histories, or possible ones, as Prashad calls his, also accomplish the ideological turns of making real in record what seems amorphous or elusive in reality. Always an interpretive endeavor, any telling of history presents one of many ways of looking at the past, and in acknowledging this explicitly in the title of his book Prashad underscores this inherent malleability of any historical project. The History of Poorer Nations is no exception, and while BRICs may not be the magical antidote that overturns the global order, rooting them in a past defines it as something with a presence in the future.