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  • Published in Book Reviews

Internationalism is not only possible, it is the necessary answer to the neoliberal assault analysed in Vijay Prashad’s, The Poorer Nations, argues Samir Dathi

The Poorer Nations

Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso 2014), x, 304pp.

In February 1989, the hills of Caracas, Venezuela, erupted in revolt. Hungry slum-dwellers, fed-up with having structural adjustments rammed down their throats, engaged in protest of an unprecedented scale, taking complacent Venezuelan elites somewhat by surprise. The Caracazo demonstrations, as they came to be known, became the centrepiece of IMF riots that spread throughout the Global South in the late 80s and 90s. These stunning demonstrations from below anchored the Bolivarian movement in Latin America in the 90s, which led to the electoral victory of Chavez in 1998. Within a decade, almost all the South American countries had elected left governments, in defiance of their erstwhile American masters. These demonstrations would help to catalyse the anti-globalisation struggles in the North, beginning with Madrid (1994) and Seattle (1999).

For Vijay Prashad, an Indian historian and Marxist, these southern liberation movements represent a new source of hope; a possible departure for the Global South from the Washington Consensus. In a nutshell, Prashad’s central thesis in The Poorer Nations is that the strategy of creating regional alliances of left, southern governments, exemplified by the Bolivarian alternative, offers a real chance of disrupting the domination of neoliberalism. Given that the Bolivarian governments have been fuelled from below by the people, their political agendas have been framed by the aspirations of the poorest in society. As such, the Bolivarian alliance represents a respectable bulwark against neoliberalism. In this subaltern movement, which Prashad refers to as the ‘South from below’, he sees a possible history of the Global South, although one very much yet to be written. If the Bolivarian model can be replicated elsewhere in the South, Prashad believes there is a possibility of dismembering neoliberalism internationally in the years to come, thereby realising the age old demands of the Third World project: bread, peace and social justice.

Before expounding the above strategy, which he sets out in his fourth and final chapter, Prashad takes us through a comprehensive account of the neoliberal story. Many readers (including myself, I must admit) will be unfamiliar with a lot of his detail. He tells the story not from the well-known North-centric perspective, which popular writers like David Harvey have made well-known. Instead, in Prashad’s narrative, Third World actors play the central protagonists. For Prashad, this less familiar side of the neoliberal tale is crucial, for according to him, it was the unravelling of Southern resistance that explains how neoliberalism rose to the ascendant in the first place. He explains:

‘What Harvey does not relate is the necessary demise of the Third World Project, and so the opening up of the countries of the South to the new geographies of production. Resistance to transnational corporations had been quite strong until the late 1970s, when the Third World Project went into tailspin, assassinated by the enforced debt crisis’ (p.5).

Indeed, as mentioned above, it is through a possible renewal of Southern struggle that Prashad hopes neoliberalism can be knocked from its perch. But first he must tell us the story of the South’s demise.

The Poorer Nations begins just as the cracks appear in the Third World Project.[1] It had all looked so promising for the South. Chapter 1 tells of the North’s annus mirabilis where in 1973, OPEC flexed its commodity power by unilaterally raising oil prices and in doing so ‘provided an object lesson for the NAM [Non-Aligned Movement] states that they were not as miserable as they sometimes felt’ (p.27). In the following year, a General Assembly resolution endorsed the New International Economic Order (NIEO), the highest point of the South’s demand for bread. The NIEO represented a realisation of Argentinean economist, Raul Prebisch’s vision of a new alliance that might challenge the conspiracy of Atlantic institutions such as GATT and the IMF, which hitherto had rigged global markets in favour of the North. Chapter One also tells in detail how progressive Willy Brandt, former chancellor of West Germany, was commissioned to report on the inequalities between North and South. Brandt’s perspective was essentially Keynesian: that dampened demand amongst the working class would lead to major crisis. Brandt therefore recommended the transfer of wealth to the South in order to stoke demand for Northern products and fend off recession.

Sadly, these manoeuvres of the South were eventually defeated by the machinations of Northern elites. Prashad explains that the establishment of the executive of the Global North, the G7, was specifically designed to thwart this meteoric rise in Southern confidence and combativeness. A central plank of the North’s retaliatory strategy was to use the increasingly aggressive IMF and World Bank to take advantage of the debt crisis of Third World countries in order to upend their attempts at developmentalism.

Chapter Two gives a detailed narrative of the South Commission. It is very much an untold story as Prashad is perhaps the first academic to have explored the South Commission archives as part of his research. The South Commission consisted of leading Third-World politicians and intellectuals who, following the neoliberal turn, came together to discuss how to resist the advanced capitalist countries economically. There were essentially two currents of thinking in the South Commission, representing two different economic perspectives. The first, favoured by economist Manmohan Singh, recently Prime Minister of India, approximated to a mimicry of Northern neoliberalism, espousing growth over equity, at least as a pragmatic first step. The second current, favoured by the often revered Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere, was instead committed to meeting ‘basic needs’ from the start, an objective which sought to end ‘destitution, hunger, ignorance, and preventable diseases’ (p.93). Sadly it was the former that won the day, as newly emerging Southern elites in the global cities of Africa, Asia and Latin America enthusiastically embraced neoliberal ideology. Prashad laments:

‘The IMF did not force them [the Southern elites] into these ideas; they came to them willingly. In some cases the elites took refuge behind the IMF, allowing it to take the blame for policies that would otherwise have been politically unappetizing if they had come from the already weakened political parties’ (p.135).

So it is that in Chapter Three, we essentially see the realisation of the South Commission’s early plans for growth over equity. Essentially, the BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), which was established in 2009, would act as ‘locomotives of the South’. The Southern elites’ plan is these large countries’ robust economic growth will drive forward the rest of the South and allow it to take-on the might of the North. Prashad calls this project the ‘South from above’. Whilst Prashad recognises that this movement grants the Third World for the first time in thirty years some independence from the North (and this is surely progress of sorts), he is painfully aware that this new project is limited by its own commitments to, what he calls, ‘Neoliberalism with Southern Characteristics’. It operates from above and is therefore not responsive to the needs of the people.

This brings us to the final chapter, which is by far the most interesting, because it is here that Prashad leads us to the (above mentioned) potential turning point in history that currently confronts us, pioneered by the Bolivarian movement - he uses this juncture in the story to draw together conclusions about the wider struggle going forward. Essentially, Prashad eschews the ‘South from above’ represented by BRICS and instead proposes the ‘South from below’, which replicates the Bolivarian model throughout the Global South, in other words: a regional alliance of left governments opposed to neoliberalism, and fuelled by powerful social movements.

A central feature of Prashad’s argument in favour of the Bolivarian regional model is his scepticism over the immediate possibility of any international co-ordinated struggle. For example, Prashad notes that the internationalism of the World Social Forum essentially failed and fragmented into regional and continental bodies such as the Asia Social Forums, the Senegal Social Forums, the Durban Social Forums and others. To explain why he thinks internationalism has not worked, Prashad draws from the Indian Marxist, Prabhat Patnaik who argues that it is due to a problem of disunity amongst the subaltern classes.

Patnaik argues that in advanced industrial countries, the classes primarily engaged in the fight back against neoliberalism are the white-collar workers, students who will become white-collar workers and public sector workers. He says these are the people in the North who are most prejudiced by globalisation. Their protests tend to oscillate between demands for social democracy (calling for the social wage to be increased) and demands for social fascism (where, for example, Tea Partyists blame foreigners for the fact their jobs have gone abroad). In contrast, in the South, the primary social class fighting neoliberalism is the indigenous people struggling against corporate encroachment upon their rural livelihoods, which has forced them to live in slums.

Prahshad therefore argues that it is due to these objective factors over which we have no control (lack of homogeneity amongst the subaltern classes), rather than subjective factors over which we have organisational control, that international solidarity against neoliberalism is not on the horizon. The interests of the people in different areas of the world are not aligned. Therefore, he concludes that the primary locus of struggle in the here and now should be national, and by extension, regional.

I should stress that Prashad certainly has not given up internationalism altogether. He explicitly recognises that internationalism is the long-term goal. He merely argues that internationalism should be incubated for the time being until social conditions (cultivated through national and regional struggle) have sufficiently ripened to actually support it, sometime in the (presumably distant) future.  

I must say Prashad’s strategic prescriptions left me quite underwhelmed. I can’t help but think that in deferring internationalism indefinitely, what Prashad really means is that the notion of social revolution should not play an integral role in socialists’ thinking today. But such a position is a mistake, albeit a common one. Any kind of sustained progressive change will depend upon international solidarity against the forces of neo-liberalism. Moreover, if socialists don’t grasp the fact that revolution is a necessary task in the current era, then their strategy and tactics quickly degrade into reformism, and this creates a permanent barrier to ever achieving socialism. I am not suggesting that revolution will happen tomorrow, or guaranteeing that it will even happen in our lifetimes, but it remains firmly on the agenda and must constantly and explicitly guide socialists’ activism and thinking.

Sadly, a strong sense of reformism does indeed weigh heavy over Prashad’s entire perspective – a sense that the best we can hope for in this era, if we are lucky, is social democracy. The fatal problem with this (widely held) position is that it is not realistic to think that stable social democracy can be established in the Global South, or anywhere, in today’s world. We have seen how spectacularly such an attempt failed in the Arab world in recent years, unsurprisingly given that the global, capitalist imperial edifice remained intact, leading to reactionary forces subverting and crushing the liberation movements.

And it is not just the Arab world where half-made revolutions and electoral reforms have failed to achieve meaningful and lasting social democracy. The record on such failures, as we all know, has been repeated again and again throughout history. Indeed, even in the Bolivarian countries, it is vital to remember that, despite many genuinely progressive reforms, these countries to one degree or another remain wedded to neoliberal prescriptions. For example, Jeffrey Webber is being quite serious when he describes Morales’ public finances as being ‘almost Thatcherite’. Again, this comes as no surprise given the corrupting world system within which Bolivarian movement operates. As even Prashad himself recognises:

‘These [Bolivarian] regimes pushed their policies to the limits of the social-democratic consensus, and often no further. Hints of a new economic development agenda were stifled by the grotesque barriers placed on the regimes – the lingering power of the United States in the region; the overwhelming institutional power of the old social classes; the reluctance of the military to relieve itself of state power and its link to property; and, of course, the insecurity of the new social democrats, who were uncomfortable with a direct assault on international finance’ (p.262).

Venezuela is something of an outlier to this neoliberal trend thanks largely to its oil revenues, but even Venezuela now faces the serious threat of reaction following the untimely death of Chavez. The entire neoliberal system is incurably pathological and cannot be reformed in any meaningful sense, even as a first step of a longer stagist path to socialism.

The reality is, as long as social movements, seeking a genuine alternative to neoliberalism, continue to be deflected from the streets to the electoral theatre as was the case in South America and the MENA region, socialism will remain an illusion. Any social democratic gains achieved off the back of a half-made revolution will inevitably be co-opted and unravelled internally and externally by the sheer weight of the neoliberal system.

Prashad argues that what we lack are objective conditions for internationalism. This appears to be code for saying that the objective conditions for social revolution are missing, as you cannot have the latter without the former. But the reality is that the objective conditions for revolution have existed at least since the neoliberal turn in the 70s. Then, there emerged a long-term blockage in economic development around the world, as the relations of production became a fetter to the development of the forces of production, demonstrated by the fact that millions of building workers became unemployed even though millions lacked decent housing; many more millions went hungry even though there was no shortage of food in the world. And since the second Great Depression of 2008, these contradictions have worsened considerably. We are on the precipice of catastrophe.

The objective conditions are ripe for revolution for another reason: there is an ever increasingly massive, global working class who continue to suffer the indignities of the market. The industrial working class in South Korea alone is as big as the world working class was at the time Marx died in 1883. Whilst Prashad might be right that this global working class is not homogenous, he underestimates the fact that the global working class does share a common interest in smashing the system, and that united they have the power to do so. The fact that the class does not yet realise this is a subjective phenomenon, and our immediate task as socialists is to overcome that problem. This is what Tony Cliff means when he says that ‘world revolution is not only possible, it is inevitable, but its victory is not inevitable.’ What are missing today are the necessary subjective factors, not the objective factors, i.e. the reverse of what Prashad argues.

In practical terms, what social movements all over the world lack are mass, revolutionary organisations rooted in the struggle, which can lead the people in the fight for their revolutionary demands. We see most clearly in Egypt the consequence of the lack of such organisational direction, where electoral reform has given way to bloody reaction. That is not to say we should not be fighting tooth and nail for transitional reforms within capitalism that improve the lives of people, because of course we should; but we do this as part of the revolutionary struggle, as part of the process of building a mass revolutionary organisation. If socialists take revolution off the agenda and sink into the dynamic of fighting for social democracy as the strategy, Prashad’s possible history of the Global South will be a tragic one.


[1] Prashad’s The Poorer Nations more or less takes off from where his earlier book, The Darker Nations finished. The Darker Nations (2007) narrated the Third World Project from 1927-8 (beginning with the League Against Imperialism) to 1983 (the Non-Aligned Movement).