Thursday, July 24, 2014

The BRICS: Yash Tandon asks tough questions – which we all need to ponder by Patrick Bond

In his May 21 article, ‘On sub-imperialism and BRICS-bashing’, contesting what I think are the tendencies in the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa nexus, Yash Tandon offers a chance to develop arguments further. He makes a few minor errors and misreads some arguments (Note 1). But he (‘YT’) asks some excellent ‘questions for further discussions.’ Right then, my (‘PB’) attempts at answers follow.

YT: 1. What is ‘the South African bourgeoisie’. Who are they? What is the source of their capital? Who owns and controls this capital?

PB: Three answers:

1) the biggest fraction remains white English-speaking, but it is an unpatriotic bourgeoisie which mainly took its money out of South Africa, forever, and which today from London, New York or Melbourne runs the global and domestic operations of Anglo, DeBeers, BHP Billiton, the other mining houses, Old Mutual and Liberty Life in insurance, SAB Miller beer, Didata info tech, Mondi paper, and a few others;

2) the next biggest is Afrikaner capital which decided to stay, especially the Sanlam empire; and

3) the other new black bourgeoisie includes Patrice Matsepe, Mzi Khumalo (in deep trouble for taking money out of the country illegally), Bridgette Radebe, Tokyo Sexwale, Cyril Ramaphosa, Khulubuse Zuma and a few other billionaries, who are allied with both the first bloc of the bourgeoisie within BEE deals, and with the state and parastatals in tenderpreneur projects. All have subimperialist tendencies, but it is the first and third I’d be most worried about, given Pretoria’s military role in the Central African Republic and DRC, on behalf of ruling-elite cronies and a nephew of the president.

YT: 2. I have problems with Çagli’s theory too. Her analysis, as also Bond’s and Abbott’s, makes out every country that follows the neoliberal economic paradigm, and seeks market or an avenue for capital export to a neighbouring country a sub-imperialist. Thus, in their lexicon, Kenya becomes a sub-imperialist country in the East African region...

PB: Not so; Kenya may be an ally of the US, as are Uganda and Rwanda, but their own bourgeoisies are so unsubstantial in relation to competitors that conceptually, they deserve to remain within the periphery. Such differentiation is typically made based upon whether capital is accumulating in the home site, or being redirected to headquarter locations, e.g. the map at The reason that most of the African continent will remain on the periphery of the world economy (with SA the sole semi-peripheral site) is that notwithstanding ridiculous hype about ‘Africa Rising,’ the continent’s wealth is being vacuumed out to regional centres (especially Johannesburg) and world headquarters sites (e.g. London, New York, Melbourne, Toronto, Shanghai) by extractive industries corporations, commodities brokers and financiers.

YT: 3. In Abbott’s analysis President Evo Morales becomes an ‘agent’ of sub-imperialist Brazil because he allows Bolivian resources to be exploited by the Brazilian oil giant, Petrobras. Applying the same logic, then, practically every head of state in Africa – from Haig Geingob in Namibia to John Mahama in Ghana - who have opened their countries to South Africa-based capitalist corporations, become, de facto, agents of sub-imperialist Jacob Zuma. But then who is left in Africa who is not either a sub-imperialist or an agent of sub-imperialists?

PB: How about the masses engaged in uprisings across the continent (assuming they count)? In a great many cases of environmental justice struggles against foreign capitalists that have been mapped out in detail by my colleague Khadija Sharife – who coordinated Africa reporting for - it is evident that firms from the BRICS countries have recently joined imperialist-based TNCs as central targets of social protest.

YT: 4. It is obvious that in the conceptual framework of the sub-imperialist theorists there is simply no room for regionalism in Africa or regional struggles against the imperialist countries of the US and Europe.

PB: Not so; the progressive forces in any peripheral African country fighting against US or EU imperialism can fight harder and smarter if they know when and how the regional powers in BRICS are in bed with their enemies, as is the case on nearly all substantative matters ranging from world finance and trade to extraction and climate politics. Regionalism in Africa should be realigned, against the combination of US/EU/BrettonWoods/WTO imperialism and BRICS sub-imperialism – but that in turn will require quite strong progressive movements dislodging the pliant African elites now running the continent.

YT: Civil society organisations – such as the Southern and Eastern African Trade and Information Institute (SEATINI) and the human rights organisations in the region - have been carrying out a sustained struggle against the EU Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) and have so far succeeded in holding back their governments to signing the EPAs. Should they stop doing their campaigns?

PB: Not at all. Richard Kamidza (whose PhD at UKZN this year tells much more about the laudable role Seatini plays) and I wrote about how encouraged we were by early signs of resistance to EPAs six years ago: These are the kinds of fights which should be strengthened, along with contestation of South Africa’s overwhelming trade dominance in Southern Africa, which has been responsible for so much deindustrialisation.

YT: 5. The one concept missing from the sub-imperialist literature is that of the ‘national question’... Is this an unjust struggle?

PB: Not at all, such struggles are still profoundly just, even where multifaceted national struggles were ostensibly ‘won’ in the BRICS through Brazil’s independence in the 1820s, the Russian revolution in 1917 and nationalist revivalism after 1990, Indian decolonisation in the late 1940s, the Chinese revolution in 1949, and South Africa’s ‘liberation’ in 1994. But there are remaining (and always reproducing) caste, racial and ethnic divisions within all these countries, just as within the imperialist powers. These remain ‘contingencies’ in their particularities because they are impossible to theorise within the general structure of imperialist and subimperialist power relations. But like the best theories of imperialism, these struggles would be reflected in the need for resistance to ‘accumulation by dispossession’ locally and globally. So if the mechanisms of super-exploitation are more extreme in the BRICS (as my article argues), that would include racism and other forms of national oppression which many millions of people continue to oppose. There is no contradiction in fighting the national question and opposing the tendencies to subimperialism which make that fight ever harder within the BRICS.

YT: 6. In terms of their analysis, there is just one legitimate struggle – that of the popular masses to rise up against the governments... Patrick would have us rise up against – among others - anti-US Evo Morales in Bolivia; popularly elected Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela; Zuma in South Africa; Mugabe in Zimbabwe; Museveni in Uganda; the sub-imperialist Chinese states of China and India; and of course, Vladimir Putin for his ‘blunt takeover of Crimea’.

PB: Because the first sentence above is incorrect, what follows is wrong. If you add to ‘the governments’ two other forces – big capital (local and global) and imperialism – then it would be correct. Then, if Morales or Rafael Correa make an alliance with Brazilian and Chinese capital to rip up indigenous territories; if Chinese diamond minining houses fund Zimbabwe generals and Israeli election-fixers make a mess of the 2013 elections; if Museveni is a durable US ally and if Zuma allies with the Pentagon to train US forces for future African invasions or sends his troops in to kill mineworkers on behalf of Lonmin; then yes, like there were major protests against Russian expansionism in Moscow on 1 May, it would be natural to expect popular uprisings. And in those cases, we should all be involved in solidarity.

YT: But would that not make us all de facto allies of the US and Europe in the ensuing post-Ukraine evolving scenario?

PB: The problem with this trick question is that it looks at the world only from above, as if there are two axes. There’s an entirely different plane missing in this question, which is the struggle below, often against both the neo-ColdWar forces. If we look at the world from below there’s a wonderful set of struggles that align the world’s progressive movement against both imperialism and sub-imperialism. One of those struggles is unfolding today, against the alliance between Sepp Blatter and Dilma Rousseff. Four years ago, an identical alliance proved exceptionally difficult for South Africa’s working class to contest, but now the Brazilian team is on the streets just like they were on June 2013, so let’s cheer them on and not be distracted by any accusations of de facto alliances, ok? The same goes for Marikana mineworkers against London capital and their Pretoria allies, in a desperate workers’ struggle over the spoils of platinum that is now five months old. In these cases it is easy to avoid being de facto allies of the US and Europe – precisely by allying with social activists fighting the BRICS governments in ways that also contest imperialism.

YT: 7. This raises larger geo-political issues, and the place of BRICS in the evolving scenario... [long and valid critique of US imperialism]... So the question: how does Africa position itself in this fast evolving geo-political situation?

PB: The current neo-colonial positioning of Africa’s top 1% lines up nearly perfectly with the interests of Washington, from the IMF and World Bank (evident in ‘Africa Rising’ celebrations) to the Pentagon (most African countries are Pentagon allies, sigh). There are occasional exceptions (e.g. Robert Mugabe at times, when defaulting on debt or redistributing white-owned farmland), but by and large the only genuine sustained opposition is coming through social struggle, not elite maneuvres.

YT: The sub-imperialist theorists are caught up in the exuberance of their conceptual creation.

PB: No, not our creation, but if the shoe fits, we should shine it for display, not so?

YT: They need to provide a better theoretical foundation of their concept. In my view, they have invented a category that simply does not exist. It is a distraction from real issues of concern to progressive forces everywhere.

PB: It is excellent to spar with comrade Tandon, not for the first time. But I would suggest that if Yash doesn’t grapple hard with the full argument we have presented at Pambazuka in April 2014 (, March 2013 ( ) and November 2012 ( ) – whether or not the semantics are compelling – he will be embarrassed by growing evidence of social struggles over ‘real issues’ caused by BRICS capitalists when they behave in just as exploitative way as the West. And those in struggle need his solidarity.


There are a few trivial corrections. First, Tandon claims ‘obvious contradictions’, specifically my recognition of BRICS’ ‘coherent strategy within the G20 to halt Washington’s threatened attack on Syria’ last September in St Petersburg. But this is not a contradiction; instead, it is what can be called a contingency, i.e., operating outside what a theory needs to explain. In the field of geopolitics after all, there are many contingencies. The Russian takeover of Crimea which led to Putin’s expulsion from the G8 in March, is another such contingency. Ukraine’s chaos was a welcome accident for Putin insofar as the opportunity for a landgrab immediately emerged. But like the Syria case, it wasn’t necessary to the reproduction of the imperialist system, in the way that the Copenhagen Accord or the G20 recapitalisations of the IMF were in 2009-12, for example. In these cases, the BRICS elites’ enthusiastic participation in imperialist rule was necessary to status quo regime maintenance, to the great detriment of BRICS citizenries and neighbours. The difference between necessity and contingency is captured in this sentence of mine: ‘However, everywhere else, the BRICS failed on nearly every count.’ It is entirely possible that the Russians and Chinese can heighten tension and shift from sub-imperialists (serving global capitalism and in the process, ecological destruction), to inter-imperialists. I fear that process, just as much as I fear the dying jerks of imperialism associated with US decline; indeed these could well be the same symptom. If that is the case, the BRICS project could move from sub-imperialism to inter-imperialism, but the possibility for progressive mobilisations from below would not necessarily improve.

YT: Bond subjects the five – he calls them the ‘Fragile Five’ –

PB: Actually, the ‘Fragile Five’ as they are known in the Northern financial markets do not include China or, until March this year when it invaded Crimea, Russia.

YT: I don’t really know the origin of the term ‘sub-imperialism’. Patrick Bond traces it back to 1974.

PB: It’s an interesting history. Marini started using it in 1965 as a contribution to dependencia theory. In a much longer discussion of this topic for the forthcoming Encylopaedia of Imperialism (below), I trace the idea back to the components of South Africa before 1910 (i.e. colonies that were subimperial in that historical sense) and to the Comintern of the 1920 when the phrase ‘minor partner of imperialism’ was used to describe the Great Powers’ deputies.

YT: I carried out a quick literature survey, and I did not find many citations on the subject. In the Wikipedia, the most current citations refer mainly to Bond,

PB: I think that would be Google, as Wikipedia doesn’t have a page yet.

YT: BRICS are not the only sub-imperialists. There are others – such as Turkey and Iran.

PB: Here is a list dating to the 1970s, when the label was applied to ruling elites from regional power centres – including Israel, Turkey, Indonesia and Taiwan – which also served the military, extractive and legitimating interests of imperialism. However, this status needs regular revisiting especially because others in a similar role (e.g. Iran before 1979, Argentina before 1982) found the posture to be profoundly contradictory. Fred Halliday (1993) advocated the following concept of sub-imperialism: ‘(a) a continuing if partial strategic subordination to US imperialism on the one hand, and (b) an autonomous regional role on the other.’ The volatility intrinsic in this role reflects not the strength but rather the fragility of Washington’s agenda, namely, a ‘doctrine designed to create a structure of sub-imperial powers’, as Joseph Gerson and ‎Bruce Birchard (1991) explained. The term sub-imperialism has had other euphemisms, including the ‘semi-periphery’ coined by Immanuel Wallerstein (1974, 1997), which continues to be used by World Systems Theorists. Chris Chase-Dunn (2013) remarks ‘that the main function of having a stratum in the middle is to somewhat depolarize the larger system analogously to a large middle class within a national society.’ Alternatively, a ‘secondary imperialist’ role for Australia and Canada reflects a much different relationship to imperialism in these countries (Albo and Klaasen 2013). In the same spirit, the word ‘subempire’ refers ‘to a lower-level empire that is dependent on an empire at a higher level in the imperialist hierarchy,’ according to Chen Kuan-Hsing, referring to Taiwan (2010, p18). The literature on the topic is wide once we include all these other potential types, but the theoretical question of greatest importance is, whether sub-imperial processes are necessary for imperialism’s reproduction. At the point the G20 emerged in October 2008, I think the answer is affirmative.

More details about the concept follow.



By Patrick Bond forthcoming in ‘The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism,’ edited by Immanuel Ness and Saër Maty Bâ

The label of ‘sub-imperialist’ states that accompany and extend imperialism was originally invoked by Ruy Mauro Marini (1965) to describe the Brazilian dictatorship’s role in the Western Hemisphere, and was then repeatedly applied during the 1970s when the Nixon Doctrine allowed Washington to outsource geopolitical policing responsibilities and accumulation opportunities to favored regional allies, mostly pro-corporate authoritarian regimes. The idea may be on the verge of returning to fashion, for the rise of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) bloc represents a potentially important force that appears sub-imperialist insofar as it contributes to global neoliberal regime maintenance. Although some believe BRICS will have sufficient autonomy to become actively ‘anti-imperialist’ (Desai 2013, Escobar 2013, Keet 2013, Martin 2013, Shubin 2013, Third World Network 2013), at the level of global governance this bloc has tended to reinforce not challenge prevailing power relations, except in exceptional cases such as in 2013 when Syria was threatened with bombing by Washington and in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea after losing crucial influence in Ukraine. Like other more isolated states in prior epochs of service to imperialism, the BRICS accumulation trajectory, global geopolitical-economic-environmental strategy, hegemony over hinterlands and internal dynamics of class formation together suggest a pattern deserving the phrase sub-imperialist (Bond and Garcia 2014).

The debate about whether imperialism requires subimperial allies has waxed and waned for decades. In the Comintern era, the phrase ‘minor partner of imperialism’ described the great powers’ deputies. Since the 1970s, the label sub-imperial has been applied to ruling elites from regional power centres – including Israel, Turkey, Indonesia and Taiwan – which have also served the military, extractive and legitimating interests of imperialism. However, this status needs regular revisiting especially because others in a similar role (e.g. Iran before 1979, Argentina before 1982) found the posture to be profoundly contradictory. Fred Halliday (1979: p283) advocated the following concept of sub-imperialism: ‘(a) a continuing if partial strategic subordination to US imperialism on the one hand, and (b) an autonomous regional role on the other.’ The volatility intrinsic in this role reflects not the strength but rather the fragility of Washington’s agenda, namely, a ‘doctrine designed to create a structure of sub-imperial powers’, as Joseph Gerson and ‎Bruce Birchard (1991) explained.

The term sub-imperialism has had other euphemisms, including the ‘semi-periphery’ coined by Immanuel Wallerstein (1974, 1997), which continues to be used by World Systems Theorists. Chris Chase-Dunn (2013) remarks ‘that the main function of having a stratum in the middle is to somewhat depolarize the larger system analogously to a large middle class within a national society.’ Alternatively, a ‘secondary imperialist’ role for Australia and Canada reflects a much different relationship to imperialism in these countries (Albo and Klaasen 2013). In the same spirit, the word ‘subempire’ refers ‘to a lower-level empire that is dependent on an empire at a higher level in the imperialist hierarchy,’ according to Chen Kuan-Hsing (2010, p18).

These are ideas generally favored by left critics of imperialism. In contrast, the concept ‘middle power’ is so nebulous and non-threatening that its use by mainstream political scientists continues depoliticize the art of global geopolitics (Jordaan 2003). Finally, for historians (whether radical or mainstream), the age of imperialism was the era prior to World War I, replete with colonial relations and the scramble for parts of the world without strong states, especially in Africa, so the concept of sub-imperial powers – especially the British colonies that came to make up South Africa in 1910 – has occasionally been invoked in this context.


The semantic differences are not important, compared to at least four core relations of sub-imperialism: to imperialism, to capitalist crisis tendencies, to super-exploitative processes and to regional hegemony.

First, to define sub-imperialism properly implies a coherent definition of the systemic processes of imperialism within which it operates. There are a variety of ways to understand imperialism, but the most durable appears to be the conception which Rosa Luxemburg (1968) set out in The Accumulation of Capital in 1913, stressing the extra-economic coercion associated with exploitation between capitalist and non-capitalist spheres under conditions of capitalist crisis (in contrast to other accounts of the era which hinge more upon capital export, formal colonial relations and inter-imperial rivalries). This is, for David Harvey (2003), a New Imperialism in which accumulation is increasingly based upon dispossession, and in which regional powers logically emerge to facilitate the process. This point deserves further consideration, below.

Second, as a result, capitalist crisis conditions become evident within the sub-imperial economies just as they are in the imperialist, even when accumulation is moving ahead at an apparently rapid clip. Overaccumulation of capital is a constant problem everywhere, often rising to crisis stage. As a result, in several sub-imperialist countries there are powerful impulses for local capital to both externalize and financialize. Judging by Harvey’s criteria of seeking ‘spatio-temporal fixes’, the BRICS offer some of the most extreme sites of new sub-imperialism in the world today. These crisis conditions are particularly important because in the contemporary period, they have shifted what had earlier been nationalist (or even ‘state-capitalist’) power relations imposed by patronage-oriented states, towards the neoliberal public policies practiced elsewhere. They also entail intensified uneven development combined with super-exploitative (and often extra-economically coercive) systems of accumulation, as well as economic symptoms of imperialist desperation, especially financialization.

Third, sub-imperial regimes expand these same neoliberal practices for use within their regional spheres of influence, thus legitimating the Washington Consensus in ideological and concrete terms, especially by facilitating multilateral trade, investment and financing arrangements. Indeed, sub-imperial powers often promote neoliberal institutions even when complaining (sometimes bitterly) about their indifference to poorer countries, and they sometimes establish new ones that have similar functions in regional terms. This in turn often permits the sub-imperial power to act as a regional platform for accumulation, drawing resources from the hinterland and marketing exports that typically destroy hinterland productive capacity and economic sovereignty. Usually the benefits are manifold, including trade surpluses with the hinterland (where the latter often supplies crucial raw materials on advantageous terms), the opportunity for profits to be accumulated within the sub-imperial power’s financial centres, and the expansion of influence via a strengthened economy especially where trade is conducted in the sub-imperial power’s currency. All of this logically entails a regional gendarme role, a division of policing labour that allows the world capitalist system to continue with expansion of contracts, their enforcement and the extraction of adequate flows of materials (as well as workers) from distant sites that remain critical to the smooth functioning of the world division of labour.

Fourth, as Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros (2011, p19) put it, imperialism’s relations with sub-imperial allies always entailed ‘the super-exploitation of domestic labour. It was natural, therefore, that, as it grew, it would require external markets for the resolution of its profit realisation crisis.’ Concretely, to take BRICS as an example, super-exploitative relations are witnessed in the way that Chinese households are torn from rural land during the ongoing urbanization process, and in the broader context in which rural people require special work permits to live in cities, where they are paid much lower wages. Such super-exploitative relations are then readily transferred to the international scale, where China’s role has been even more predatory than Western corporations, backed by its support to local dictators (e.g. the case of Zimbabwe where Chinese military and Zimbabwean generals conjoined as the Anjin Corporation in the world’s largest diamond fields, with a resulting Resource Curse as extreme as any in contemporary Africa) (Maguwu 2013).

Likewise, South Africa’s historical mode of apartheid super-exploitation – termed ‘articulations of modes of production’ by Harold Wolpe (1980) – exemplified the most extreme internal dimension of sub-imperial accumulation. Migrant male workers from rural Bantustans as well as regional hinterlands as far north as Malawi long provided ‘cheap labour’, thanks to black rural women’s unpaid reproduction of children, sick workers and retirees generally without state support. This was not merely a matter of formal racial power. The expansion of the South African migrancy model much deeper into the Southern African region in the wake of apartheid’s early 1990s demise occurred notwithstanding tragic xenophobic reactions from the local working class. The August 2012 Marikana massacre of striking migrant platinum mineworkers at Lonmin was another example of how far the regimes’ policing function would go internally so as to defend the profitability of multinational extractive corporations (Saul and Bond 2014).

But it is the inexorable regional-hinterland expansion of these processes that compels sub-imperial states to follow the logic of imperialism. This is recognized by professional geopoliticians of capital, such as the Texas intelligence firm Stratfor (2009), in an internal memo (as revealed by WikiLeaks): ‘South Africa’s history is driven by the interplay of competition and cohabitation between domestic and foreign interests exploiting the country’s mineral resources. Despite being led by a democratically-elected government, the core imperatives of South Africa remain the maintenance of a liberal regime that permits the free flow of labor and capital to and from the southern Africa region, as well as the maintenance of a superior security capability able to project into south-central Africa.’ The ability to move up-continent was questioned in March 2013, however, in the Central African Republic capital of Bangui after authoritarian ruler Francois Bozize was ousted by guerrillas. More than a dozen South African soldiers were killed, according to interviews of surviving troops in Johannesburg’s main Sunday newspaper, while ‘protecting belongings of… businesses in Jo’burg... We were lied to straight out... We were told we were here to serve and protect, to ensure peace’ (Hosken and Mahlangu 2013). The protected Johannesburg capitalists included firms linked to the ruling party (Amabhungane 2013).


These latter relationships, in which capitalism both exploits and corrodes non-capitalist relations through extra-economic coercive techniques, were theorised originally by Rosa Luxemburg and have been revitalised as an explanatory system by David Harvey under the rubric of accumulation by dispossession. In other words, there are theoretically derived processes which explain the logic of imperialism and sub-imperialism together, even if contingencies may change the geographical place, shape and scale at which these processes unfold.

Luxemburg’s (1968, 396) Accumulation of Capital focuses on how capitalism’s extra-economic coercive capacities loot mutual aid systems and commons facilities, families (especially women’s role in social reproduction), the land, all forms of nature, and the shrinking state:

“The relations between capitalism and the non-capitalist modes of production start making their appearance on the international stage. Its predominant methods are colonial policy, an international loan system – a policy of spheres of interest – and war. Force, fraud, oppression, looting are openly displayed without any attempt at concealment, and it requires an effort to discover within this tangle of political violence and contests of power the stern laws of the economic process.”

Her core insight (1968, 397), as distinct from framings by Lenin, Bukharin, Hilferding, Hobson and others of her era, was to show that ‘Capital cannot accumulate without the aid of non-capitalist’ relations and ‘Only the continuous and progressive disintegration of non-capitalist organization makes accumulation of capital possible.’ This process, in which ‘capital feeds on the ruins’ of the non-capitalist relation, amounts to ‘eating it up. Historically, the accumulation of capital is a kind of metabolism between capitalist economy and those pre-capitalist methods of production without which it cannot go on and which, in this light, it corrodes and assimilates.’

This process is amplified during periods of desperation intrinsic to capitalist crisis, Luxemburg (1968, 76) observed, drawing on Marx’s classical theory about ‘perpetual overproduction,’ characterized by ‘the ceaseless flow of capital from one branch of production to another, and finally in the periodical and cyclical swings of reproduction between overproduction and crisis.’ At that point, Luxemburg (1968, 327) insists, the core countries reveal ‘the deep and fundamental antagonism between the capacity to consume and the capacity to produce in a capitalist society, a conflict resulting from the very accumulation of capital which periodically bursts out in crises and spurs capital on to a continual extension of the market’ (see Bond, Chitonge and Hopfmann 2007 for Southern African applications).

With the current renewal of this process – crisis, extension of the market, and amplified capitalist-noncapitalist super-exploitative relations – serving as the basis for renewed imperialism, Harvey (2003) adds a new layer to this argument:

“The opening up of global markets in both commodities and capital created openings for other states to insert themselves into the global economy, first as absorbers but then as producers of surplus capitals. They then became 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.”

Harvey (1992) identifies ‘a cascading and proliferating series of spatio-temporal fixes’ to persistent economic crisis, which are invoked so as to extend capitalism geographically and across time, usually facilitated by dramatic financial expansion. The role of banks in core and even sub-imperial countries is to indebt poorer countries so that they can be wedged open for the sake of liberalised trade and investment or simple resource extraction. Expansion of the credit system is also the traditional way to address overproduction of goods, as debt allows these to be mopped up in the present with a promise to extract further surpluses to pay the price in future. According to Harvey (2003: p134), these fixes do not result in crisis resolution, but instead, lead to new contradictions associated with uneven development:

“increasingly fierce international competition as multiple dynamic centers of capital accumulation emerge to compete on the world stage in the face of strong currents of overaccumulation. Since they cannot all succeed in the long run, either the weakest succumb and fall into serious crises of devaluation, or geopolitical confrontations erupt in the form of trade wars, currency wars and even military confrontations.”

The territorially-rooted power blocs generated by internal alliances (and conflicts) within national boundaries, or occasionally across boundaries to regional scale, are the critical units of analysis when it comes to fending off the devalorization of overaccumulated capital. By uncovering these units, it is feasible to root a durable geopolitical theory appropriate for understanding contemporary imperialism. Sub-imperial states are critical transmission belts, in part because the opening up of global markets in both commodities and capital created openings for other states to insert themselves into the global economy. But the sub-imperial elites are rarely patriotic, for they maintain their own personal (and sometimes corporate) accounts in the metropole, leading Harvey (2003: p196) to remark,

“The benefits of this system were, however, highly concentrated among a restricted class of multinational CEOs, financiers, and rentiers. Some sort of transnational capitalist class emerged that nevertheless focused on Wall Street and other centres such as London and Frankfurt as secure sites for placements of capital. This class looked, as always, to the United States to protect its asset values and the rights of property and ownership across the globe. While economic power seemed to be highly concentrated within the United States, other territorial concentrations of financial power could and did arise.”

The BRICS reflect this new relationship, for as Brazilian president Lula announced in 2010, ‘A new global economic geography is born.’ However, relying upon financiers such as Goldman Sachs’ Jim O’Neill (originator of the ‘BRIC’ meme in 2001) to codify economic power is risky. What appeared as a strong bloc of BRICS countries at a leadership summit in March 2013 became, within four months, the core of the ‘Fragile Five’ countries, leaving O’Neill to remark that only China deserved the ‘building-block’ BRICS designation (Magalhaes 2013). India, South Africa and Brazil lost vast amounts of their currency values and funding flows once financial capital left these markets in search of the dollar safe-haven once the US Federal Reserve’s loose monetary policy – ‘Quantitative Easing’ – began to be ‘tapered’. The same experience of massive capital outflow hit Russia in early 2014, first because of the loss of regional power signified by Ukraine’s government overthrow, and then when Moscow began a blunt takeover of Crimea, Western sanctions threats crashed its stock market.

So notwithstanding the validity of the general approach Luxemburg proposed, in which ongoing capital accumulation entails imperialism reaching into the terrain of extra-economic coercion, this is not a stable outcome. Each situation must be evaluated on its own concrete terms. Dating at least a half-century to when the idea of sub-imperialism was introduced, in Brazil, the concrete settings are vital because contingencies arise that may divert from the twin logics of capital and expanding territorial power relations.


The new concentrations of southern power began to be evident by the 1960s when new alliances strengthened in the Cold War context. In his pioneering writing about Latin American geopolitics dating to the 1960s, Marini (1974) argued that 1970s-era Brazil was ‘the best current manifestation of sub-imperialism,’ because of regional economic extraction, export of capital typically associated with imperialist politics, and internal corporate monopolization, including financialization.

There are three additional roles for these regimes, today, if they are to be considered sub-imperialist. One is ensuring regional geopolitical ‘stability’ in areas suffering severe tensions: for example, Brasilia’s army in Haiti and Pretoria’s deal-making in African hotspots like South Sudan, the Great Lakes and the Central African Republic. The Israeli and Saudi Arabian roles in the Middle East are comparable, and white-ruled South Africa was, likewise, a Western sub-imperial outpost during the Cold War, what with liberation struggles raging in surrounding countries during the 1960s-80s. Extra-economic coercion in support of raw material extraction is a common feature of this power, when in many cases the role of regional gendarme is not just ‘peace-keeping’ but transferring surpluses from the hinterland to the sub-imperialist capital city, and often from then to the imperialist headquarters, as is especially evident for contemporary South Africa (Bond 2006a, Bond 2006b).

The second is advancing the broader agenda of globalized neoliberalism, so as to legitimate deepened market access. This occurs insofar as most sub-imperial powers are enthusiastic financial backers of the main vehicles for global economic governance, especially the Bretton Woods Institutions and World Trade Organisation. For rhetorical purposes the sub-imperial powers’ foreign, trade and even finance ministries may be less than flattering about global governance, and in the case of the BRICS in 2013-14, may even launch new multilateral initiatives with the stated aim of challenging power. But standing by the IMF even in times of crisis – e.g. the institution’s recapitalization in 2009 and 2012 occurred with notable BRICS support ($75 billion in coordinated aid in the latter case) – reflects the overall role that sub-imperial regimes play: to lubricate, legitimize and extend neoliberal political economy deeper into their regional hinterlands.

The same has been true in the single most important long-term global governance challenge, climate management, where the BRICS (without Russia) lined up as critical allies within Washington’s ‘Copenhagen Accord’ strategy in 2009, both avoiding emissions cuts and promoting the further financialization of the climate strategy through extended carbon trading (Bond 2012; Böhm, Misoczky and Moog 2012). (Later, Russia cemented this function by raising its own greenhouse gas emissions dramatically and then reneging on Kyoto Protocol commitments and withdrawing from the main climate treaty.) This role of propping up global economic and environmental malgovernance often benefits home-based corporations in the sub-imperial countries, but it is also a marker of cooperation and collaboration with the imperialist projects of core countries’ multinational corporations and states.

Another example of where this was not only helpful but necessary was the World Trade Organisation, which in earlier manifestation several BRICS countries had sought to revitalize as early as the 2005 Hong Kong ministerial summit. Free-trade corporate expansion and ongoing self-interested protectionism prevail in an often uneasy mix in sub-imperial economies, but BRICS counterhegemonic activity in the WTO has occurred well within the broader agenda of neoliberalism. According to one of the coordinators of the Our World is Not for Sale civil society network (James 2013), the mid-2013 promotion of the Brazilian ambassador to the WTO – Roberto Azevêdo – to become the body’s director-general was debilitating for resistance by the South’s ‘G-110’ bloc. The cancellation of Europe-South African Bilateral Investment Treaties by SA trade minister Rob Davies was considered to be an inspiring case of standing up to the West, but as an exception which proved the rule, and it also confirmed Pretoria’s defense of regional domination against EU intrusion into its immediate hinterland, the Southern African Customs Union. For at the end of the day, in December 2013, Azevêdo was able to arrange a WTO ministerial agreement that put the organization back on track – a notable accomplishment given the failure of his predecessor, Pascal Lamy who hailed from (and invariably supported) the European Union during prior failed efforts.

In this context, what may emerge from the networking of the sub-imperialist elites, as witnessed in the BRICS bloc in its initial formation period, 2008-14, is an agenda that more systematically confirms super-exploitative practices within their hinterlands. Just as the political carving of Africa in Berlin at the 1884-85 conference hosted by Bismarck drew boundaries mainly benefiting extractive enterprises – mining houses and plantations as well as construction firms associated with capital accumulation in England, France, Portugal, Belgium and Germany – BRICS appears to follow colonial and neo-colonial tracks. Identifying port, bridge, road, hydropower and other infrastructure projects in the same image, the BRICS 2013 Durban summit had 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, with more than a dozen African heads of state present as collaborators. The New Partnership for Economic Development and African Peer Review Mechanism were often alleged to serve as African homegrown policing mechanisms for such infrastructure, but were generally ineffective (Bond 2005, 2009).

However, it is also critical to concede that the forms of BRICS sub-imperialism are diverse, for as Moyo and Yeros (2011: p19) remark,

“Some are driven by private blocs of capital with strong state support (Brazil, India); others, like China, include the direct participation of state-owned enterprises; while in the case of South Africa, it is increasingly difficult to speak of an autonomous domestic bourgeoisie, given the extreme degree of de-nationalisation of its economy in the post-apartheid period. 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’.”

In sum, the recent period has reignited a fruitful debate about the concept of sub-imperialism and about transitions from sub- to inter-imperialism, and perhaps also one day to anti-imperialism. However, the most critical factor in making this debate real, not just a struggle over semantics between impotent leftist intellectuals, is a different process entirely, one not contingent upon rhetoric from above, but upon reality from below. Reality from below is increasingly tense in each of the main sub-imperialist powers currently seeking unity, the BRICS.

In each, a series of class, social, ecological and political battles has begun to unfold, sparked by unusual events that to the surprise of most commentators, took on national importance: public transport price increases and excesses associated with World Cup hosting in mid-2013 (Brazil); a democracy movement in late 2011, freedom of expression battle involving a risque rock band in 2012, gay rights in 2013 and anti-war protest in 2014 (Russia); a high-profile rape-murder in late 2012 and municipal electoral surprise by a left-populist political party in late 2013 (India); an ongoing wave of rural anti-displacement, local-ecology, anti-corruption and labour protests that number more than 200,000 annually (China); and a massacre of mineworkers in mid-2012 amidst a general uprising of poor people against lack of access – or overpricing – of municipal services (South Africa).

All such struggles are impulsive and impossible to predict, but much deeper class struggles against super-exploitation, ecological destruction and neoliberalism are unfolding constantly in each site. The challenge for BRICS critics from below is to link and internationalise as quickly as possible, because their interests and campaigning analyses, strategies, tactics and alliances have many points of overlap – with each other and with the world’s progressive forces. Only then will a genuine global anti-imperialist project become possible, i.e., when anti-sub-imperialists of the world also unite.

* Patrick Bond’s new co-authored book (with John Saul) is ‘South Africa – The present as history’(James Currey and Jacana publishers, 2014).


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