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BRICS face brewing external capitalist crisis and Growing Internal Strife

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Last week, listening to activists and allied academics at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Mumbai’s Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS), the magnitude of the responsibility faced by the BRICS’ leadership suddenly became clearer to me. The Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa network’s incorporation into global economic governance is looking tattered after hollow victories last month, first in restarting the long-stalled World Trade Organization (WTO) in Nairobi and then in the long-standing International Monetary Fund (IMF) “voice and participation” dispute over voting shares.

In Nairobi, the key player arranging the BRICS’ co-optation into the pro-Western trade deal was a Brazilian, Roberto Azevêdo, the institution’s director-general. Indian peasants needing rudimentary state support are probably the main victims.

But BRICS neoliberals cannot chortle about the WTO, because as Financial Times columnist Gillian Tett recently admitted, “the patterns of modern trade and global growth are not behaving in 2016 as western and emerging market financiers might have expected, or as they did during earlier booms.” The main measure of trade vitality, the Baltic Dry Index, is now more than 90% lower than its 2010 peak.

Global finance is even more chaotic what with corporate securities crashing from eastern China west to New York and Chicago. The lack of faith in Beijing’s management of stock markets and of its vast debt load is palpable, a reversal from the 2008-13 period of Western over-confidence in Beijing’s authoritarian capitalism.

Still, huge financial corrections now underway won’t restore healthiness to a world economy suffering vast over-production. According to a recent Goldman Sachs report, the energy, real estate and commodity sectors will receive between a third to a quarter less investment annually through 2017 than in 2014. The only sectors for which the bank projects growing capital investment are software, computer hardware and semi-conductors.

Without substantial real capital accumulation, more financial bailouts are likely in 2016, perhaps including a fourth money-printing “Quantitative Easing” spree in Washington. But as I feared, late last month, Republican Party members of the US Congress finally (five years late) agreed with President Barack Obama that China now can pay higher IMF dues and claim a 37% larger stake in the world’s most neoliberal economic institution, along with Brazil at +23%, India at +11%, and Russia at +8%. Thread-bare South Africa loses 21% and six other African states drop more than 25% of their IMF voting power as a result of the vote rejigging, including Nigeria (41%).

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde will also this year seek re-election to an office only ever held by white Europeans (just as the World Bank presidency has been reserved for US citizens). She continues to face persistent corruption charges in the French courts based on the crony-capitalist generosity she exhibited towards a former Adidas sportswear owner who was also a major French Conservative Party donor when she served as Finance Minister in Paris before 2011.

Hope that rebellious Russians might delegitimize the IMF, instead of propping it up with new funds and support, vanished when Vladimir Putin bragged at his press conference last month, “Despite all limitations, we complied with all our [loan repayment] commitments to our partners, including international credit institutions. We pay everything due on time and in full.” Two weeks later, he began vicious budget cuts affecting Russia’s poorest people.

So perhaps it will be just in the nick of time that BRICS leaders meet in Delhi to shore each other up at some point in the second half of 2016 (the date is yet to be announced). Dilma Rousseff still faces a corruption-related impeachment threat; her chairing of the rancid state oil company Petrobas was negligent at best. Probably she will just have celebrated the Olympic Games in Rio, though the FIFA World Cup of soccer in 2014 did her no good.

And like Dilma, Jacob Zuma will, quite likely, sheepishly carry a fresh Moody’s ‘junk-bond’ credit rating status to Delhi, along with growing rifts in his party following further shrinkage of the post-1994 majority what with forthcoming municipal elections across South Africa. Indeed, Brazil, Russia and South Africa will again have below-zero economic growth per person this year, as Putin gets busier distracting his citizens from austerity using Syrian and Ukranian skirmishes. Xi Jinping’s economic problems will continue to multiply, as un-repayable bank loans cascade and “hard landing” becomes the Chinese economy’s description most commonly invoked.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempts to normalize rampant proto-fascistic tendencies in his ruling BJP party, while hosting BRCS allies and posturing about alternatives to Western institutions, will be cherished by his religious-nationalist support base. Typical is the president of the BRICS New Development Bank, K.V. Kamath, whose reign at the Indian state development bank was a model for commercialization in contrast to its earlier industrialization mandate. I have not seen a better recitation of the damage done by Modi’s “Hindu supremacism, economic neoliberalism and social conservatism” than Nitasha Kaul’s recent catalogue.

Though it is the only BRICS economy deemed healthy by financial markets, so many aspects of life in India are deteriorating, and this was obvious at even the two elite campuses I visited, where political debates raged. One overarching problem is Modi’s withdrawal of nominal subsidies given to help pay for studies and living expenses (a problem now also re-motivating vigorous South African student protest once again).

Another that immediately hit me as I disembarked last Monday in Delhi, was durable caste discrimination. The catalyst was the suicide of University of Hyderabad PhD candidate and student activist Rohith Vemula (age 26) that morning, on a campus that suffered repeated much abuse of the Dalit “untouchables” and other castes for whom 12% of seats are reserved. Within hours, impressive demonstrations and class boycotts were called at JNU, TISS and many other campuses, with pressure growing on Hyderabad academic leaders to stand down.

The solidarity needed with Dalits and other oppressed castes, with these students and so many other Indians has a reverse mirror image in at least one recent friction, over Zuma’s firing of a neoliberal finance minister (Nhlanhla Nene) and replacement with an inexperienced politician regarded as a stooge. After investigating, Business Day publisher Peter Bruce last week suggested that Zuma’s initial move was mostly repelled by an awesome economic force, one usually credited with ‘non-interference’ and non-conditionality: “I have reliably learnt that the Chinese were quick to make their displeasure known to Zuma. For one, their investment in Standard Bank took a big hit. Second, they’ve invested way too much political effort in SA to have an amateur mess it up. Their intervention was critical.”

Still, global financial fragility should not distract us from the underlying forces behind the current capitalist crisis, in the tendency to over-accumulate and generate gluts. The Western elite’s hesitancy in fully co-opting ‘sub-imperialist’ BRICS elites, who are trying so hard to make the world system work for their own corporates, reflects how little room there is for manoeuver.

India’s progressive movements will also react to BRICS: probably with another counter-summit and protest, as happened in Durban in 2013 and Fortaleza in 2014. (A farcical pro-Putin ‘Civil BRICS’ was held in Moscow last year.) Though ‘anti-nationalist’ slurs will be hurled at them, activists can grab the opportunity to raise the stakes, at a time there is panic evident in BRICS and Western capitals.

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Patrick Bond (pbond@mail.ngo.za) is professor of political economy at the University of the Witwatersrand School of Governance in Johannesburg. He is co-editor (with Ana Garcia) of BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique, published by Pluto (London), Haymarket (Chicago), Jacana (Joburg) and Aakar (Delhi).

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