First Published: 2013-05-02


Whose Interests are Served by the BRICS?


The world-system's structural crisis is moving too fast, and in too many uncertain ways, to assume sufficient relative stability to allow the BRICS as such to continue to play a special role, either geopolitically or economically, argues Immanuel Wallerstein.


Middle East Online

In 2001, Jim O'Neill, then chair of Goldman Sachs Assets Management, wrote an article for their subscribers entitled "The World Needs Better Economic BRICs." O'Neill invented the acronym to describe the so-called emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, and to recommend them to investors as the economic "future" of the world-economy.

The term caught on, and the BRICs became an actual group that met together regularly and later added South Africa to membership, changing the small "s" to a capital "S." Since 2001, the BRICS have flourished economically, at least relative to other states in the world-system. They have also become a very controversial subject. There are those who think of the BRICS as the avant-garde of anti-imperialist struggle. There are those who, quite to the contrary, think of the BRICS as subimperialist agents of the true North (North America, western Europe, and Japan). And there are those who argue that they are both.

In the wake of the post-hegemonic decline of U.S. power, prestige, and authority, the world seems to have settled into a multipolar geopolitical structure. In this current situation of some 8-10-12 loci of significant geopolitical power, the BRICS are definitely part of the new picture. By their efforts to forge new structures on the world scene, such as the interbank structure they are seeking to create, to sit alongside and substitute for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), they are certainly weakening still further the power of the United States and other segments of the old North in favor of the South, or at least of the BRICS themselves. If one's definition of anti-imperialism is reducing the power of the United States, then the BRICS certainly represent an anti-imperialist force.

However, geopolitics is not the only thing that matters. We will also want to know something about the internal class struggles within BRICS countries, the relations of BRICS countries to each other, and the relation of BRICS countries to the non-BRICS countries in the South. On all three issues, the record of the BRICS is murky, to say the least.

How can we assess the internal class struggles within the BRICS countries? One standard way is to look at the degree of polarization, as indicated by GINI measures of inequality. Another way is to see how much state money is being utilized to reduce the degree of poverty among the poorest strata. Of the five BRICS countries, only Brazil has significantly improved its scores on such measures. In some cases, despite an increase in the GDP, the measures are worse than say twenty years ago.

If we look at the economic relations of the BRICS countries to each other, China outshines the others in rise in GDP and in accumulated assets. India and Russia seem to feel the need to protect themselves against Chinese strength. Brazil and South Africa seem to be suffering from present and potential Chinese investing in key arenas.

If we look at the relations of BRICS countries to other countries in the South, we hear increasing complaints that the way each of these countries relates to its immediate (and not so immediate) neighbors resembles too much the ways in which the United States and the old North related to them. They are sometimes accused of not being "subimperial" but of being simply "imperial."

What makes the BRICS seem so important today has been their high rates of growth since say 2000, rates of growth that have been significantly higher than those of the old North. But will this continue? Their rates of growth have already begun to slip. Some other countries in the South -- Mexico, Indonesia, (south) Korea, Turkey -- seem to be matching them.

However, given the world depression in which we continue to exist, and the low likelihood of significant recovery in the next decade or so, the possibility that, in a decade, a future Goldman Sachs analyst will continue to project the BRICS as the (economic) future is rather dubious. Indeed, the likelihood that the BRICS will continue to be a regularly meeting group with presumably common policies seems remote.

The world-system's structural crisis is moving too fast, and in too many uncertain ways, to assume sufficient relative stability to allow the BRICS as such to continue to play a special role, either geopolitically or economically. Like globalization itself as a concept, the BRICS may turn out to be a passing phenomenon.

Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New Press).

Copyright 2013 Immanuel Wallerstein - distributed by Agence Global


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