Thursday, July 24, 2014

The BRICS a response to Yash Tandon by Mike Davies

Yash Tandon opens with a semantic discussion, initially querying the credentials of the term “sub-imperialism”, but ending with an explicit and snide attack on theorists for having an “exuberance of their conceptual creation” to discredit the term. This is disingenuous at best – a term is useful or not, irrespective of its historical antecedents: a neologism may offer a clarity denied to worn-out words whose meaning is obscured by over-usage. The historical roots of the term ‘sub-imperialism’ may be of interest to lexicographers but irrelevant to the legitimacy or otherwise of an argument.[1]

One may make a semantic critique of “sub-imperialism” as a definitional category. It implies an imperialism that roots itself in an archaic sensibility. While many governments demonstrate an imperialistic arrogance in their foreign policies, imbued with a notional self-righteousness, I would think it more useful to seek a neologism that incorporates but does not echo the Age of Empires which one hopes is behind mankind. Perhaps the old term “sub-hegemon” might be better although it lacks the “layering” implied by “sub-imperialism.”


However a primary objection to the term is that it establishes a false dichotomy by simplistic reductionism that marginalises the nuances of power at the national, regional and global levels. Is the Mugabe regime’s exploitation of the Marange diamond fields not a form of internal imperialism whereby resources are appropriated by the centre at the expense of the periphery?[2] The regime uses military force as well as opaque partnerships with external corporations while practising blatant corruption as a few of its tools. Mugabe as a proto-Leopold is not an untenable image, underpinned by helicopter gunships maintaining a monopoly of primitive accumulation.

Africanists often use this tactic of reductionism to present a simplistic dichotomy between the ‘bad’ West and the ‘good’ South that ignores the agency of local elites in the global South or anti-elite activities within Western states. Thus, for example, we see claims that Cleopatra was ‘black’ as if this re-casting is a triumph for Africa while ignoring the brutalities of pharaonic rule.[3]

Tandon then dismisses critics of the BRICS sceptics for shallowness and ‘distraction[4]’ as if his ex cathedra pronouncement is sufficient argument to dismiss the typology. He further undermines his own argument by personalising these critics as Patrick Bond and his acolytes: such ad hominem attacks are the most base of false refutations since they insinuate an unspoken illegitimacy that appeals to people’s personal regard or not for Bond and his students.

While he claims that arguments based on ‘empirical observation’ are ‘inadequate’, or, worse, non-sense, unless ‘located in some theory’, I would suggest that verified observation is the foundation of the scientific process, that, rather than squeezing the data to conform to a pre-determined theoretical straight-jacket, the honest analyst derives theory from observation and interpretation. However such undergraduate perplexity about deductive versus inductive reasoning should not intrude into grown up journals

The tactic of claiming that Bond’s arguments ‘resonate’ with “some parts of the popular media in Africa as also in the West”, that Bond makes ‘journalistic forays’ is a poor attempt to delegitimize by association. Placing inverted commas around the word 'authorities' implies a dismissal of their legitimacy and Tandon wonders “if they would support Bond”. A more honest approach would be to examine the substance of Bond’s use of these references and directly answer the merits or not of such references.

Tandon poses some ‘questions for further discussion’ accusing Bond et al yet again of ‘empiricism’. While a network analysis of the SA elite would be useful, its omission is hardly an indictment. Tandon dislikes the idea of a hierarchy of sub-imperialism - perhaps he missed the “big fish eat little fish” story in kindergarten – and proceeds to belittle the hypothesis with ridicule, plaintively asking “who is left in Africa who is not either a sub-imperialist or an agent of sub-imperialists?”


But the real reason I suspect Tandon is so vociferous is the inconvenience Bond’s analysis creates for his faux pan-Africanism, for the delusion that local elites are in some way spearheading an indigenous Southern anti-imperialism. They are not: Africa’s leaders are colluding with the world’s political and economic hegemons to maximise their own interests, no less in the 21st century than in the 18th.[5] Does Tandon really think the EPAs are entirely one-sided creations that have no buy-in from African elites?

He conflates an imaginary class of elite warriors with the real struggle waged by activists to the detriment of the latter. Our struggles will be more successful if we address the national class question honestly, acknowledge the comprador factor, and build genuine trans-national people-to-people solidarity to confront and neutralise these local agents.

He lapses into a thoroughly disreputable device – “the people” – to justify a simplification that we are all one in the struggle, a reductionism that marginalises and trivialises the internal dynamics of our countries. Just ask a survivor of Operation Murambatsvina living in a ‘temporary camp’ outside Harare for the last 9 years who is the architect of her suffering or who are her comrades in the struggle for security and dignity. Tandon finds such nuances ‘dis-empowering’ – I find his simplification dis-empowering because it reduces our struggles to a North-South dichotomy. Regionalism as practised in Africa is an elite project that generally excludes ordinary people. Cosying up to national elites is a dangerous game for activists who face co-option or irrelevance as a result.


At one point Tandon realises he is stepping into dangerous territory and covers himself (“This is not the place for an elaboration of this”) but is he really raising the bogeyman of “national self determination” in Africa? I doubt it, for this is one thing that will keep us mired in the kind of internecine warfare that Europe lived through for centuries. Are groups like the Mtakwazi Liberation Front in Zimbabwe or Uganda’s LRA a valid expression of this struggle? A progressive would seek to transcend ethnic and historic divisions through a genuine regionalism that is based the interests of working class people and peasants rather than national elites. And isn't “self-determination” a worn-out device yet, one that masks the rise of national elites who have perpetuated the authoritarianism of the colonial State?
He implicitly recognises Bond’s radicalism but can only use “the friend of my enemy is an enemy” argument. Is Tandon really a friend of Mugabe, Museveni and the other ‘Big Men’ in Africa who have ruthlessly entrenched their own power at the expense of the basic rights of citizens? Some of us can multi-task though, and oppose both global imperialism and local tyranny.


[1] In fact even a cursory online search pushes back the term’s origin e.g. Roberts A. D (1962) The Sub-Imperialism of the Baganda The Journal of African History Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 435-450

[2] Or even an ‘under-development’

[3] E.g. Diop, Cheikh Anta (1974) The African Origin of Civilization. Chicago, Illinois: Lawrence Hill Books

[4] Not just once but twice : “Otherwise their critique is a distraction from real issues of concern to progressive forces” and in the following paragraph “It is a distraction from real issues of concern to progressive forces everywhere.”

[5] E.g. the posturing of Mugabe is a rhetorical device that creates a veneer of legitimising anti-imperialism that masks the ruthless primitive accumulation going on in Zimbabwe as part of a new class project.

*Mike Davies is a Zimbabwean researcher and activist. He is the Interim Coordinator for Southern Africa of the International Alliance of Inhabitants - a global solidarity network of local activists fighting evictions. He also is a researcher for the Research and Advocacy Unit and was chair of the Combined Harare Residents Association from 2002 to 2008.


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