Friday, November 01, 2013

Review: The Poorer Nations

[Vijay Prashad. The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. London: Verso, 2012.]

When the global justice movement erupted into mainstream North American consciousness in 1999, much that was written not only in the mainstream but even by many of the participants in the movement themselves treated it as a phenomenon that started on the streets of Seattle. Right from the start, there were people -- generally older activists and radical intellectuals, often racialized, sometimes indigenous -- pointing out that this was not, in fact, the case. These movement elders pointed both to current but still older struggles ongoing in the Global South, and also to the overarching history of five centuries of struggle against European and Euro-American domination of which organizing against the World Trade Organization and the other elements of neoliberal global governance was merely the latest phase.

There were resources around, for those who cared to look, about each of these scales of history -- recent grassroots organizing in the Global South and bigger picture accounts of colonization and resistance -- but what I don't remember encountering, then or more recently, was material that effectively connected those two. And that, I think, is one of the key accomplishments of The Poorer Nations: connecting the institutions of global neoliberal rule to earlier colonial realities, not merely by pointing out similar patterns of benefit and harm, but by tracing material and institutional connections between the point A of the postcolonial moment and the point B of the neoliberal moment. The neoliberal institutions that were the targets in summit protests in the couple of years following Seattle (and that remain the means through which global austerity has been organized since the first wave of crisis in 2008) do not exist by accident. They are not technocratic solutions to capitalist problems that just happen to reproduce global relations of domination. They were, as Prashad's hard work in the archives demonstrates, put in place quite deliberately to do just that. They exist as they do as a result of a series of answers over the course of sixty years or so to elites in the dominant capitalist countries saying, "So now what do we do?" in response to efforts by formerly colonized peoples to make the global order more just. The G7/G8/G20 lineage of organizations was explicitly started, as Prashad shows, to smash the power of such attempts to create justice. And it worked. What was produced in its place is now called "neoliberalism." And while current efforts by formerly colonized countries to make shifts in the global order do continue, they do so with much more modest ambitions than in the early postcolonial years, and in ways much more attuned to their elites than to the bulk of their populations.

The organization of the book is roughly chronological, and it is mostly an intellectual and political history with a focus on the developments of and in international institutions. It begins with a more detailed examination of the moment with which its predecessor, The Darker Nations, ends: the turmoil of the 1970s during which the Third World project was at its high point and when its defeat was assured. This moment was also the moment of defeat within the Global North for post-Second World War social liberalism as a source of principles for shaping the global order. It was, of course, neoliberalism that triumphed over both. The next chapter traces efforts by the states of the Global South starting in the '80s to grapple with the new reality, and to arrive at new ideological and institutional tools to intervene in it. This resulted in a much narrower vision of what might be possible than in the Third World project, aspiring not to a radical reordering but to what Prashad calls "Neoliberalism with Southern Characteristics" -- basically attempts to stay for the most part within the neoliberal vision but with deviations from the North's approach so as to address the South's debt, re-jig the relatively new intellectual property regime which also substantially blocks industrial development in the South, and rework global rules for agricultural trade. The North has had almost no interest at all in making even token concessions, so the South was forced into the strategy that is the focus of the third chapter, that of depending not on generosity from the industrialized North but on co-operation among the countries of the South, with a leading role for the largest countries. Again, though this was part of a vision somewhat more humane for much of the population of the planet than the neoliberal viciousness of Washington and its allies (of course enthusiastically including Canada), it was still very much neoliberal and very much dependent on inequality within and between the nations of the South.

There are at least a couple of other key points that Prashad makes in this history that are often ignored in the ways that Northern leftist talk about it. One is to augment the still quite useful version in works like David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism to recognize the role of the neoliberal shift not just as a response to a crisis of capitalist accumulation but as a tool for maintaining neocolonial Euro-American dominance in a postcolonial world. Another is to emphasize that the elites of the South are not just hapless pawns of northern hegemons. Rather, as the mass anti-colonial movements faded as political forces in the South, Southern elites actively embraced an enthusiastic pursuit of neoliberal reorganization of social relations for their own benefit -- just with a slightly different inflection than the elites of the North.

The final chapter of the book looks at the less institutional and more street-based efforts within the Global South to advance an alternative to neoliberalism, from the so-called "IMF riots" of the '80s, to the electoral "pink tide" in Latin America of the '00s, to organizing by indigenous people, peasants, women, and in slums today. This chapter is really a different sort of thing than anything else in either of the two books. It certainly covers some important aspects of movements and state-based left politics in the Global South in the last 20 years, and some of its analysis of the present moment is very useful, but as history of struggles from below it feels much too brief to do them justice. And as useful as I find the analysis of the current moment that is really the bulk of the chapter, I think a more in-depth history of movements would do more to ground it. As well, the analysis itself (again, as useful as it is) could have benefited from greater length. For instance, I think there is more to be said on both sides of the debate about the potential role for the state form in struggles to challenge neoliberalism and, ultimately, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Even in his choice to begin his account from a 1989 uprising in Venezuela (which he follows up later in the chapter with an analysis of the accomplishments of Chavez) rather than from the Zapatistas, Prashad signals his stance in that particular debate. Which is fine, and I think his take on the question is worth serious consideration, but there's also much more to be said on the issue than this chapter has the space to say. In any case, there's lots to like in this chapter. I think his conclusion that material conditions mean struggles for the moment must be within nations and regions, and can only aspire to planet-wide internationalism but not yet realize it, makes sense. I also think his emphasis on the importance in the future of radical organizing within slum communities seems plausible. And I do like the overall approach of the chapter: identifying what is already happening and trying to figure out what that says about future possibilities. I think, really, this chapter should've been a book in its own right to most effectively do what it sets out to do.

So, yes. Read this book and its companion volume and you will develop a much surer understanding of how current institutions of global rule have been derived from past arrangements, and of many of the different moments and possibilities in the last six decades created by anti- and postcolonial resistance to the unjust global order.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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