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The Poorer Nations

by LUIS NIEVES

If global resistance is not on the horizon that does not mean that struggle must turn inwards.  Precisely the opposite is necessary, which is to say that national and regional struggles must be alert to the ideological importance of internationalism, while also forging genuine institutional platforms that might support it.

These must be crafted, and as our movements do so through the building of regional and national power, they must incubate an internationalism that is not utopian, but real. – The Poorer Nations

Vijay Prashad has carefully woven a deeply historical and theoretical work in his latest book The Poorer Nations, which examines how the Global South utilized the UN and its various institutions to overcome over 500 years of conquest and destruction. Prasad has focused on this topic and according to one commentator, “Vijay Prasad is fast becoming the historian of the Global South.” He developed this book by studying broadly, drawing from seminal historical work and contemporary theorists and literature; interviewed many people; and carefully reading through archival materials so he can understand the historical and contemporary issues facing the Global South. As you read the book, you can clearly see an activist mind at work that is constantly asking deeper, more profound questions, and sharpening a theoretical perspective because our movements “must incubate an internationalism that is not utopian, but real.”

This book is for “scholars, of course, but also by people who work in the UN world—…people who work in the international institutions and guide to activists, politicians and grassroots organizations on what the global south has achieved since 1974, and today.” It builds upon his 2007 book, The Darker Nations and completes telling the history of the contemporary world  from a Southern standpoint. His book challenges most current literature because current literature “masks the Northern perspective and interests of much of this history-writing.”

Prashad develops his argument, analysis and a theoretical framework in four chapters. In chapter one he analyses the development agenda of the Third World Project, and how it worked to challenge the global north and to create programs and strategies to counter the impact of colonialism. However, the global South’s work was eventually defeated by what Prashad calls the New International Property Order put forward by the G7 by new trade regimes negotiated in the 1980s.

This chapter also assesses how Willy Brandt, former chancellor of West German, assembled a commission of experts to study the widening inequality between the world’s rich and poor and between the world’s richest states and its poorest.  This Commission came at a critical time, however, Northern liberalism is eventually defeated, and the Global North then begins instituting neoliberalism.

The second chapter documents how a group of political intellectuals formed the South Commission to create an alternative to neoliberalism. Prashad also discusses the critical and pivotal role of Julius Nyerere (whom he calls the stubborn nail) in crafting new concepts and strategies. Nyerere and other Global South intellectuals developed an alternative, which ultimately failed, and subsequently the global north imposed a New International Property Order.  This led to the debt crisis of the 1980s.  A critical component of this strategy was that elites of th15125371e global South began to focus its potential on the economic growth of its “locomotives,” notably the demographically large countries of China, India, Brazil, and South Africa—with the idea that these locomotives, through the concept of South-South cooperation, would pull along the rest of the South.’ This led to a series of developments such as  the IBSA Dialogue (India, Brazil, and South Africa) in 2003 to the BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in 2009. Prashad utilizes the South Commission archives (he is the first to use these archives) to understand and to tell this story.

This chapter provides the background for chapter three, which is an analysis of the “South from above” Prashad notes that BRICS is not revolutionary, but that it is the first formation in thirty years to challenge the global North. He believes that BRICS opens some space, and that “it is in this gap between neoliberal policy and imperial power that an opportunity presents itself for the bloc of the South.”

However, Prashad concludes that the BRICS’s project is “limited by its own commitments to Neoliberalism with Southern Characteristics”.   One of the things that Prasad does is draw from seminal work such as Fanon’s “The Pitfalls of National Consciounsess” conceptual understanding so he clearly understands the limits and weaknesses of BRICS.  Prashad believes that “Neoliberalism had a polycentric revival- in the G7, of course; but so too in the capitals of the Pacific Rim and in the emergent “locomotives of the South”. (p-5) He then discusses how the global north reacted to the non-aligned movement and created neoliberal policies to both contain the global south.

The last chapter evaluates the potential in the “South from below, and examines the World Social Forum and its debates; the Bolivarian experiments, the potential of slums, and the limitations of internationalism in the face of a growing regionalism and multi-polarity. Prashad’s is assessment continues a debate and an evaluation of internationalism.

This is an important book for a number of reasons. One is its theoretical contribution. Prashad takes the history of the global south and interprets it so that we can gain a vantage point and understand the processes that have shaped this period, neoliberalism, and actively engages the studies and literature on neoliberalism. For example, “From David Harvey’s useful primer, we get the impression that neoliberalism was experimented with during the New York municipal crisis, and then, via the IMF and its eleves, exported to the rest of the planet.  This is not the full story.  What Harvey does not relate is the necessary demise of the Third World Project, and so the opening up of the South to the new geography of production.” (p-5)

Perhaps one of the most significant contributions is how he utilizes the theoretical framework of Indian Marxist Prabhat Patnaik to evaluate how effective internationalism is at this time. According to Patnaik, internationalism is not appropriate at this time because.  “The force of transnational capital acts in a similar way against states- in each case it adopts a neoliberal attitude, pushing for minimum state regulation of capital and its business enterprises and uncomfortable with demand management..” p-251 Based on Patnaik, Prasad believes that “a coordinated global struggle is not on the horizon.” Instead he emphasizes the centrality of building resistance within the nation state, and the analysis can easily be extended to regions. (p-253)

This insight can help us understand how civil society and state processes must both be used to create a way forward.  He wants people doing this work to understand the complexities and difficulties of constructing a new world.  He points out the limits of civil society, as well as state processes, and helps us understand that building a better future needs both processes.

In regard to the role and limits of civil society, he notes.  “Emir Sader regarded the rejection of parties and governments as a serious mater because “it would severely limit the foundation of an alternatives to neoliberalism, confining such aspirations to a local o sectorial contexts- the NGOS mantra,… while giving up any attempt to build an alternative hegemony, or an global proposals to counter and defeat world capitalism’s current neoliberal project.”

This book is a significant work, but I wish that Prashad had or will address how do we utilize BRIC to advance popular struggles.  Also, he could have discussed how community-based organizations, NGOs, and state power can be harnessed to move all countries towards an egalitarian society.  We know from the histories of so many revolutionary movements, that when these nationalist movements come into power they often recreate the power relations of the colonial powers.  We see this clearly in the ANC in South Africa.  Hopefully Prashad will address this in his future work.

There is a richness and depth in the book. As I read Poorer Nations, I imagined him reading in, then stopping occasionally to ponder over the significance of a particular passage.  Sometimes he might get up, stretch and make a note to call someone about a particular event, or write a short note to read another book (his bibliographical notes are a treasure in themselves). Prashad has constantly worked on global south issues and another commentator has noted that

Because of Prashad’s careful approach, this book can help us understand how to move forward by providing a historical analysis of the global South’s work, its difficulties, successes and failure and a theoretical lens to combine civil society and state-building processes to create a just and equitable future for the people of the global south.

Luis Nieves taught in African American Studies and American Studies at the University at Buffalo from 1995- 2008, focusing on conquest, resistance and creating a just and equitable world.

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