The weaknesses and obstacles confronting the BRICS are explored. However, the elites of the BRICS exist comfortably within the prevailing global world capitalist system and remain more of a spectre rather than a real alliance
The construction of BRICS is in many ways artificial. This alliance is more visible in the media debates than in practical international politics. But is there a reason for these countries to get together except making real fantasies of experts and journalists? Yes, there is. Though these countries are so different in so many ways they still have a lot in common:
• their position as a semi-periphery within the global capitalist system as strong countries playing an important though not dominant role in the process of neoliberal globalization;
• their social and economic policies, though not completely following neoliberal patterns stay within the framework of neoliberal model;
• all these countries practice neoliberal economic policies, but neither country is orthodox in this respect (till recently they were able to combine a free market approach with some elements of social redistribution, state intervention and other measures that somehow compensated market failures).
BRICS ROLE IN CAPITALIST WORLD-SYSTEM
Every country from this group has a specific role in the capitalist world-system. Each of these countries provides resources which determine its position and function in the system. Brazil is essential for agricultural supplies, China provides cheap labour, India supplies cheap intellectual work force for high tech industries, South Africa provides minerals and Russia supplies minerals, oil and gas. The scale and conditions of provision of these resources for global capital makes BRICS countries essential for the current system. However, the economic, cultural and human potential of BRICS countries is ‘excessive’ from the point of view of the role which BRICS countries play in the world-system.
We may represent BRICS countries as equivalent to teenagers who have grown up too quickly, ‘modernizing’ themselves very rapidly if we look at that process in historic perspective. This leads to a contradictory situation when impressive growth of economic and cultural potential (at least in case of Russia and China) was not accompanied by the development of democratic political traditions or, mass involvement of people in political life through self-organization. As a result, in these countries neoliberal reforms – even when they lead to the destruction of accumulated economic and cultural potential – produce high levels of social tension, but do not generate conscious social resistance.
In each country, though in different ways, development of a neoliberal model of capitalism creates a need to overcome structures and relations which contradict this model. In Russia, aggressive marketization was accompanied by the use of some elements of the Soviet welfare state. Free education and healthcare, the social security system and cultural capital that had accumulated within families during the Soviet period helped Russians to adjust to the market economy and even become successful. Decline of living standards as a result of ‘shock therapy’ and later neoliberal reforms were real but it was less painful, because of the safety nets provided by the remaining structures of the Soviet Welfare state.
CONTRADICTIONS WITHIN EACH OF THE BRICS
However, now these welfare state institutions themselves are eroded or destroyed by the neoliberal reforms. Contradictions are becoming more painful. The Russian state faces a choice which it has to make very quickly. One route is to go forward with neoliberal policies along the lines of the mainstream tendencies within the global system in which the Russian government wants to remain, provoking ever-increasing conflicts with its own society. Trying to remain loyal to the global economic institutions and their logic, the state becomes less and less capable of sustaining existing mechanisms of social compromise, using its financial resources to address mass interests.
The other route is to stop the destruction of the welfare state and reorient government policies towards rebuilding and developing the welfare system, but this means a conflict both with global institutions and with Russia's own elite.
BRICS countries are dominant forces in their regions. They engage in different macro-regional alliances, but each time they do so to achieve local or regional goals. Their potential to go beyond that is still too weak. In the case of Russia, its ambitions based on the imperial tradition of leading the disintegrating commonwealth of independent states (CIS) and other alliances, contradict its own subordinate position in global capitalist economy and world politics.
BRICS countries are the strongest among the states of semi-periphery and that makes them potentially dangerous for the balance of forces of the current global capitalism. This creates an objective precondition for an alliance between these states, trying to increase their weight in the world-system.
A SPECTRE RATHER THAN A REAL ALLIANCE
But on the other hand, elites of these countries exist quite comfortably within this system and are not interested to risk this situation even when they have some political ambitions on the global level. Their loyalty to global economic institutions is seen as a guarantee of their international and even local status. That's why BRICS remain a spectre rather than a real alliance, a factor that can be used sometimes to blackmail their partners from the global center, but not a working mechanism of integration of societies joining forces to solve common or similar problems.
No matter how different the specific situations in BRICS countries, they have a common problem in the context of the global attack on the welfare state and its institutions. But the potential for social development that is either remaining unused or has been destroyed is thus becoming transformed into society’s potential for resistance to neoliberalism. And this factor makes BRICS countries a place where objective preconditions for anti-capitalist alternatives are emerging.
This block of countries may form into a force opposing neoliberal order, but only on a condition of domestic social change in each of these countries. Unfortunately this can only happen when societies overcome their own weakness and authoritarian control. Unless that it happens, the BRICS alliance doesn't have a perspective to become a real global force capable of changing the world order.
The model which can be called ‘know how BRICS’ seems to be exhausted. Up to some point local elites were able to keep both sheep and wolves satisfied. That was possible because of important resources which these countries provided to the global market gaining some advantages in this division of labour. Economic crisis limits these advantages, diminishes the flow of external money into BRICS countries and the real value of this money.
INTENSIFICATION OF DOMESTIC SOCIAL CRISIS AND CONFLICTS
This leads to the intensification of domestic neoliberal reforms which undermine institutional basis of social compromise as well as social and political mechanisms of consensus-building. Following the recommendations of global institutions such as WTO, IMF and the World Bank leads to even deeper transformation of social and economic structures. Economies are more and more getting oriented to the weakening demand of international market at the expense of domestic market which also gets weaker or doesn't realize its potential growth. This intensifies domestic social crisis and conflicts.
In case of Russia this is expressed by chronic social crisis which can't be overcome without changing existing economic structures and political system. Majority of Russian population still bases their life strategies on the assumption that basic welfare guaranties are going to be provided, but their chances in this respect are diminishing rapidly. Given current tendencies even those welfare provisions and rights that are formally remaining available will become technically dysfunctional.
This policy creates problems not only to the masses of people but also for regional elites. Trying to cut costs for itself, federal administration expends powers of regional authorities, but doesn't provide them with access to additional financial resources. In practice this means more responsibility without more rights.
Regional administrations face deep crisis trying to cope with this new situation. In practice they have to slow down the implementation of the neoliberal policies introduced by the central government because for them this is the only chance to avoid or postpone mass protests. But this increases political contradictions and conflicts within the state system and creates a real governability crisis.
Ironically, at the central level this leads to even stronger insistence on the market reform as central authorities see that as an only way to overcome the ‘inefficiency’ of local bureaucratic structures. Thus stochastic sabotage at local level leads to new institutional struggles and decomposition of state institutions, including the most basic ones. Russia faces catastrophic governability crisis which adds to economic and social crisis, producing preconditions for serious political destabilization.
OBSTACLES TO CONFRONT
The exhaustion of social compromise model objectively creates conditions for stronger cooperation between BRICS countries, which at least have a chance to work together against global neoliberal institutions demanding that they soften their approach. But here we face considerable obstacles:
• BRICS countries themselves are structurally dependent on global economy and existing division of labour — their neoliberal reforms are not only produced under the pressure of global capital but also result from this dependency;
• BRICS elites are involved in global competition trying to increase their weight in the current world-system;
• Domestic (national) elites oriented to the global market are not interested in changing neoliberal policies, on the contrary they want to intensify it.
WEAKNESSES OF BRICS
Being unable to create a real functional alliance BRICS countries imitate alliance-building to put symbolic pressure on the global center. But their inability and unwillingness to go beyond that limits their chance to use even this political tool. This weakness is increased by the impotence of local political elites at least in some BRICS countries, lacking political actors capable to articulate and defend their own state interests against capitalist global elites.
These characteristics of BRICS countries and their elites lead to the situation that instead of being a force contributing globally to the improvement of the conditions of the countries of the periphery, they become the Center's ‘fifth column,’ a force of sub global support for neoliberal strategy.
But even here we see BRICS rather as a potential factor of world politics than a serious player. In practice the Center isn't interested in encouraging an integration of a block of countries with impressive resources and a population of over three billion people. Even under neoliberal leadership such integration can produce problems. It is better to have an alliance in name only, without much substance.
Contradictions between society and the state which we see in BRICS countries are basically the same as in the Center of capitalist system, but they are deepened by the economic dependency. However BRICS countries have a strong tradition of revolutions and resistance struggles which remain part of the collective memory of the people. They have rich history and cultural traditions of their own. They can be seen as a sub global support base for the welfare state.
The problem is that actual level of resistance and struggles is very weak compared with the objective level of social discontent. Here the problem is with the lack of social subjectivity. What is needed is a new social alliance or rather a historic block to be built in order to promote and consolidate these struggles making them effective in terms of practical social change. And even now we have all the conditions to use BRICS as a space for dialogue of these emerging forces working for a new strategy of progressive social transformation both at local and global level.
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* Anna Ochkina is with the Institute of Globalisation and Social Movement Studies in Moscow, and presented this paper at a seminar of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.