Brics is no emancipatory project
In 1741 the economy in New York was seriously depressed and the winter had been particularly cruel. On March 8, Fort George, the imperial armoury built on a hill looking over the harbour and home to the colonial governor of the state of New York, was burnt to the ground. More fires soon followed.
The fires had been planned in a harbour tavern frequented by enslaved and free black people, Native Americans and impoverished white people, many of whom were Irish. The conspirators, described by colonial officials as “the outcasts of the nations of the earth”, aimed “to burn down the town”.
This was not New York’s first revolt. In 1712, enslaved people from West Africa, what is now Ghana and Benin, had burnt a building near Broadway and attacked the people who came to put out the fire. As the fires continued into April of 1741 colonial paranoia ran rampant and assumed, as it always has, that there must be white agency behind black revolt. Spanish-speaking black sailors and Irish soldiers were significant participants in the conspiracy but the dominant group was Akan. The revolt was smashed and 34 people deemed to have been conspirators, many of them given mangled but recognisably Akan (today’s Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire) names — such as Cuffee for Kofi, Quash for Kwasi and Quack for Kwaku — were hung or burnt at the stake.
Before the internet there was the ocean. It was on the ocean, and on and via the docks, that colonial power first confronted forms of resistance that, in terms of its protagonists, matched its reach across the planet. Authors Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker have shown that while the ship and the dock enabled capitalism, always an intensely raced phenomenon, to extend its reach around the planet, they also became sites of resistance. The pirate ship, sometimes governed by a democratic council involving every person on the ship, drew its crew, its music and its politics from around the colonial world — Africa, the Americas and Ireland. Often slave ships were captured and became pirate ships: armed maroon communities on the ocean.
After a revolutionary war in Haiti, largely fought by previously enslaved Africans, defeated slavery and the three European armies backing it, news of the triumph rushed around the black world, largely via sailors and conversations in and around docks.
In Cuba images of rebel leader Toussaint Louverture were passed from ships to men working on the docks, and then on to slaves in the plantations. The Haitian Declaration of Independence was translated into Spanish, published and circulated. When slaves and workers revolted on farms outside Cape Town in 1808, people from Indonesia, India and Ireland joined the revolt. Louis van Mauritius, the leader of the revolt, had taken great care to dress as Louverture did.
By 1900, when the first pan-African conference was held in London, an anticolonial public sphere had been created via letters and publications of various kinds. Activist author WEB du Bois gave the closing address, where he famously said that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line”, and insisted on “the rights of responsible government to the black colonies of Africa and the West Indies”.
After the Russian Revolution in 1917 the communist movement brought anticolonial forces across the world into conversation. This was formalised with the establishment of the League Against Imperialism 10 years later in Brussels, at which Josiah Gumede, a founding member of the ANC, was an important participant.
The independence of India in 1947 and the anticolonial wars in Vietnam and Algeria galvanised an urgent and global sense of popular anticolonial solidarity. The Bandung Conference, held in 1955, marked the coming out of Third Worldism as, in Vijay Prashad’s phrase, a project rather than a place.
Although that project was now led by states and nationalist movements it was understood to be popular and emancipatory. In The Damned of the Earth, written in 1961, Frantz Fanon didn’t only insist that “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World” but, also, that its “aim should be to try to resolve the problems to which Europe has not been able to find the answers”.
At the TriContinental Conference in Havana in 1966 the extraordinary armed resistance to United States imperialism in Vietnam took centre stage. Che Guevara had left Cuba for Bolivia, but in a letter to the conference he famously declared: “How close and bright would the future appear if two, three, many Vietnams flowered on the face of the globe ... forcing it to disperse its forces under the lash of the growing hatred of the peoples of the world!”
For a moment Cuban opposition to Unita and the South African Defence Force in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, from August 1987 to March 1988, seemed to render Guevara’s ringing declaration concrete. But by the 1980s the Third World, as an emancipatory project, was in serious crisis. American imperialism, with its catastrophic litany of wars and coups, the debt crisis and repressive and corrupt regimes had throttled most of the life out of Third Worldism.
There were brief flashes of life here and there, including the moment in 2004 when Thabo Mbeki defied the US and liberal opinion at home to stand with Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Port-au-Prince to commemorate the bicentenary of the Haitian Revolution in January 2004. But the next month the US military removed Aristide from office with the deft ideological backing of a very effective new form of post-Cold War imperialism — the pro-imperial nongovernmental organisation (NGO) presenting itself as “civil society”.
Today Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is a pitiful caricature of what was once an emancipatory project. Brazil has long conducted itself as a neocolonial power in much of Latin America and Michel Temer, a corrupt man who came to power via a coup, represents the interests of capital and a deeply reactionary white oligarchy.
In India Prime Minister Narendra Modi, frequently described as a fascist, also offers support to the most rapacious forms of capital, as well as the Israeli state and the US military.
Vladimir Putin runs a repressive and deeply corrupt regime in Russia that legitimates itself with organised dishonesty mediated through a form of right-wing nationalism.
The scale of the Chinese economy now exceeds that of the Eurozone, and the return of China as a global power has certainly diminished the power of the US. The development of a multipolar world is a welcome development in so far as it
gives smaller countries and regions more room to move. But Chinese capital, not unlike that of India
and Brazil, has frequently taken highly exploitative forms in Africa, and its own economy relies on systemic and gross exploitation and repression.
With right-wing populism stirring across much of the world, Brexit, and US President Donald Trump threatening a trade war, these are increasingly uncertain times, politically and economically. In this unstable global situation the Brics countries, perhaps working with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of the most despotic leaders on the planet, may well negotiate some counterweight to Trump’s trade war. But any space that is opened will be taken by capital, and not for any popular emancipatory projects.
In South Africa our economy is in real trouble, with various kinds of debt accumulating to dangerous levels. We continue to deindustrialise, and to run a disastrously bad education system. President Cyril Ramaphosa has no credible plan to address the immediate crisis of mass unemployment and mass racialised impoverishment, or the imperative to develop our own productive forces.
There are significant signs — ranging from ongoing political violence to recent remarks by ANC secretary general Ace Magashule, and the election of Qedani Mahlangu and Brian Hlongwa into the leadership of the ANC in Gauteng — that the party has passed the point of being reformable. Chinese money may buy some time for Eskom, Ramaphosa and the ANC but the cost of loans is always paid in a reduction in autonomy.
If there are any possibilities to recover an emancipatory project in what was once the Third World they certainly do not lie in an alliance with figures as unrelentingly grim as Temer, Modi or Putin, let alone a figure as grotesque as Erdogan.
If there is any prospect for the recovery of an emancipatory project across what is these days called the Global South, it can only be given life with the construction of popular and democratic progressive forces.
Although these forces are far from being hegemonic in any of the Brics countries they do exist to some degree, particularly in Brazil and India. But they are under sustained pressure, and sometimes outright assault, from the same leaders that are meeting in Sandton this week.
Here in South Africa Ramaphosa has never lifted his voice against the ongoing repression, which on occasion extends to murder, of grassroots activists.
In 2018 it is essential to, as politician poet Aimé Césaire declared in his blistering polemic against colonialism, first published in 1950, “to see clearly, to think clearly — that is, dangerously”.