21 March 2013

Africa: BRICS and a Potentially Progressive Semi-Periphery

Photo: The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa
President Zuma and his delegation at the Closed Plenary Session of the Fourth BRICS Summit.


The fact that emerging powers are increasingly banding together and promulgating policies that challenge the hegemony of the United States and the institutions that have been produced by the European and Asian core powers indicates that semi-peripherality does not just reproduce the existing global hierarchy.

What is the potential for rising national regimes, coalitions of national states such as BRICS, and transnational social movements to together transform the global capitalist system into a more humane and democratic human society within the next 50 years? This question can be asked using an evolutionary and world historical approach to the problem of contemporary transformation and reproduction.

One of the big ideas that has emerged from this approach is the notion of 'semi-peripheral development': the idea that semi-peripheral polities often contribute to social change by implementing organisational and ideological forms that facilitate their own upward mobility and that transform the logics of social reproduction and development.

These insights allow us to ask, will potentially progressive forces - contemporary semi-peripheral national regimes and alliances of these with one another, and transnational social movements that are mainly based within them - either reproduce the existing institutions and structures of the capitalist world-economy, or instead transform the global system into a qualitatively different, more egalitarian world society?

Today's political globalisation evolved because the powers that be were in heavy contention with one another for geopolitical power and for economic resources, but also because resistance emerged within the polities of the core and in the regions of the non-core. The series of hegemonies, waves of colonial expansion and decolonization and the emergence of a proto-world-state occurred as the global elites contended with one another in a context in which they had to contain strong resistance from below.

In addition to the waves of decolonization, other important forces of resistance were slave revolts, the labour movement, the extension of citizenship to men of no property, the women's movement and other associated rebellions and social movements. These movements affected the evolution of global governance in part because the rebellions often clustered together in time, forming what have been called 'world revolutions'.

Thirty years ago, Giovanni Arrighi, Terence Hopkins and Immanuel Wallerstein pointed out that revolutionaries rarely attain their demands immediately. Rather what happens is that 'enlightened conservatives' implement the demands of the most recent previous world revolution in order to cool out the challenges of a current world revolution. This is the way in which world revolutions produce the evolution of global governance:

• The Protestant Reformation in Europe was an early instance that played a huge role in the rise of the Dutch hegemony.

• The French Revolution of 1789 was linked in time with the American and Haitian revolts.

• The 1848 rebellion in Europe was both synchronous with the Taiping Rebellion in China and was linked with it by the diffusion of ideas, as it was also linked with the emergent Christian Sects in the United States.

• 1917 was the year of the Bolsheviks in Russia, but also the Chinese Nationalist revolt, the Mexican revolution, the Arab Revolt and the General Strike in Seattle led by the Industrial Workers of the World in the United States.

• 1968 was a revolt of students in the US, Europe, Latin America and Red Guards in China.

• 1989 was mainly in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but important lessons about the value of civil rights beyond justification for capitalist democracy were learned by an emergent global civil society.

• The current world revolution is an important context for the questions about semi-peripheral development that are the main topic of this paper.

The crucial point here is that the evolution of capitalism and of global governance is a response to resistance and rebellions from below. This has been true in the past and is likely to continue to be true in the future. Capitalism and socialism have dialectically interacted with one another in a positive feedback loop similar to a spiral. Labour and socialist movements were obviously a reaction to capitalist industrialization, but also the US hegemony and the post-World War II global institutions were importantly spurred on by the World Revolution of 1917 and the waves of decolonisation.

The nature of core/periphery interactions has changed with the invention and development of military technologies and organisation, communications and transportation technologies and economic and religious institutions that conceptualise and regulate competitive and cooperative relations among polities.

Where does the notion of the 'semi-periphery' fit? It is, first, a relational concept, for semi-peripheral polities are in the middle of a core/periphery hierarchy, but what that means depends on the nature of existing organisations and institutions and the forms of interaction that exist within a particular world-system.

Some observers have claimed that the world is now flat because of globalisation. But studies of global inequalities do not find a strong trend toward a flatter world. Even with the rapid economic growth of China and India in the past few decades, the global stratification system has not become significantly more equal. The large international differences in levels of development and income that emerged during the industrial revolution in the 19th century continue to be an important feature of the global stratification system.

Some have claimed that globalization and 'the peripheralisation of the core' evident in the migration of industrial production to semi-peripheral countries has eliminated the core/periphery hierarchy. Deindustrialization of the core and the process of financialisation have had important impacts on the structure of core/periphery relations, but it is surely an exaggeration to contend that the core/periphery hierarchy has disappeared. Certainly US economic hegemony is in decline and there are newly arising challengers from the semi-periphery. But recent upward and downward mobility has not appreciably reduced the overall magnitude of inequalities in the world-system.

Wallerstein's development of the concept of the semi-periphery has often implied that the main function of having a stratum in the middle is to somewhat depolarise the larger system analogously to a large middle class within a national society. This functionalist tendency has been elaborated in the notion of 'sub-imperialism' originally developed by Ruy Mauro Marini in 1972 and more recent discussed by Patrick Bond in his analysis of the BRICS.

This approach focusses on the instances in which semi-peripheral polities have reinforced and reproduced the existing global structures of power. Bond's study of post-apartheid South Africa's 'talk left, walk right' penchant is convincing. But he may underestimate the extent to which the emergent BRICS coalition is counter-hegemonic.

For example, the discussion of the need for an alternative to the US dollar in the global economy and the proposal for a new development bank for the Global South have had an unsettling effect on the powers-that-be in Washington and New York even if Bond makes little of these challenges.

Of course, not all semi-peripheral polities are hot-beds of progressive revolution. Some are under the control of reactionary elements and other are just trying to move up the food chain of global capitalism. But the fact that emerging powers are increasingly banding together and promulgating policies that challenge the hegemony of the United States and the institutions that have been produced by the European and Asian core powers indicates that semi-peripherality does not just reproduce the existing global hierarchy.

The question for the New Global Left is how to encourage the potential for constructing a more egalitarian world society. Bond is certainly right that the transnational social movements need to push the BRICS to more effectively address the fundamental problems of ecological crisis, global inequality and global democracy.

Among regimes, movements and coalitions that are progressive we distinguish between those that are reformists and those that are anti-systemic. Our study of Latin American regimes makes a distinction between reformist regimes that have adopted some socially progressive policies (including Brazil) or taken some anti-neoliberal international positions and anti-systemic regimes such as most of the members of ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America.

As mentioned above, some of the challengers to global neoliberalism and the hegemony of the United States are not progressive. Thus the New Global Left must distinguish between its allies and those political actors that are deemed to not be progressive. And among the latter there may be some that can be worked with on a tactical basis or convinced to pursue more progressive goals.

Latin America as a whole has had more of these progressive regimes because there has been a regional propinquity effect, and because Latin American is in the 'backyard' of the global hegemon (the United States). Latin America has a larger proportion of semi-peripheral countries than do other world regions.

The imposition of draconian structural adjustment programs in Latin America in the 1980s and the rise of neoliberal politicians who attacked labour unions and subsidies for the urban poor led to a reaction in many countries in which populist politicians were able to mobilize support from the expanded informal sector workers in the megacities, leading in many cases to the emergence of reformist and anti-systemic national regimes.

The relationship between the progressive national regimes and the progressive transnational social movements has been contentious. Despite strong support from the Brazilian Workers Party and the Lula regime in Brazil, the charter of the World Social Forum (WSF) does not allow people to attend the meetings as formal representatives of states. When the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and Lula tried to make appearances at WSF meetings, large numbers of movement activists protested. The horizontalists, autonomists and anarchists - and also many environmental activists - tend to see those who hold state power as the enemy even if they claim to be progressives.

The WSF process has itself been a complicated dance toward global party formation and the construction of a new global United or Popular Front. Its charter prohibits the WSF itself from adopting a program or policy stances. The WSF is supposed to be an arena for the grass roots movements to use to organise themselves and make alliances with one another. What can they imagine when claiming, 'another world is possible'?

Both a new stage of capitalism and a qualitative systemic transformation to some form of socialism are possible within the next several decades, but a new systemic cycle of capitalism is more likely. The progressive evolution of global governance has occurred in the past when enlightened conservatives implemented the demands of an earlier world revolution in order to reduce the pressures from below that are brought to bear in a current world revolution.

The most likely outcome of the current conjuncture is probably global Keynesianism in which enlightened conservatives in the global elite form a more legitimate, capable and democratic set of global governance institutions to deal with the problems of the 21st century. If US hegemonic decline is slow, as it has been up to now, and if financial and ecological crises are spread out in time and conflicts between ethnic groups and nations are also spread out, then the enlightened conservatives will have a chance to produce a reformed world order that is still capitalist but that meets the current challenges at least partially.

But if the perfect storm of calamities should all come together in a short period of time (a single decade) the progressive movements and the progressive non-core regimes would have a chance to radically change the mode of accumulation to a form of global socialism. On which side of the struggle will the BRICS fall?

* Chris Chase-Dunn is a professor of sociology at the University of California-Riverside: http://irows.ucr.edu/research/citemp/citemp.html.)


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