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Messy Multipolarism

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Picture: ANA files / March 20, 2014 – Cellphone image showing members of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) marching against chronic HIV and Tuberculosis medicines and intimidation of health activists in the Free State health system in Bloemfontein on Thursday, March 20. There are two exceptions to multilateral mission failure to record. First, the 1987 banning of chemical emissions that were destroying the ozone layer, and second, the the UN Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria which was thanks to South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign, Medicins sans Frontiers – vital to raising local life expectancy from 54 in 2004 to 65 just before Covid-19 hit, the writer says.

By Patrick Bond

The chaotic economy, politics and environment the world has faced in 2023 has not treated South Africa well, nor is 2024 likely to see improvements, even if the two hottest wars ebb. In spite of Johannesburg’s hosting of an expanding BRICS, that event in August witnessed a failed ‘de-dollarisation’ gambit plus profound contradictions in South African foreign policy.

In Ukraine and Gaza, regional bullies invaded and killed tens of thousands of civilians, in the process unveiling both the limits to Western power and legitimacy – since Russia appears to have consolidated its Donbas land grab and Israel remains undeniably genocidal – as well as intractable problems with the so-called ‘multipolar’ alternative.

Advocating the latter, three middle-income democratic powers have huge responsibilities. India’s September hosting of the G20 powers – including South Africa – merely brought the African Union into formal membership but accomplished little else aside from consolidating Narendra Modi’s prestige. Brazil’s G20 hosting will do the same for Lula da Silva next November, and in 2025 South Africa takes the baton.

Failure appears certain

But overlapping ‘polycrisis’ symptoms are still acute – and global-scale mismanagement evident – when it comes to

  1. stabilising a financially-turbulent and ‘deglobalising’ world economy including supply-chain vulnerabilities (like Yemen-based Houthi disruption of Red Sea shipping),
  2. reducing extreme wealth inequality and tax evasion,
  3. preparing for the next pandemic with global public medical goods (not privatised Big Pharma profiteering), and most importantly for our children’s future,
  4. cutting fossil fuel use in the wake of a failed UN summit in Dubai, a disaster which reflected Abu Dhabi National Oil Company chief executive Sultan Al-Jaber’s surreal presidency.

And in 2024 new geopolitical conflicts are liable to break out at any time in Central Asia, the Himalayan Mountains, the South China Sea and the Korean peninsula. Worse, military leaders in Russia and Israel have threatened to deploy their nuclear arsenal. The stress of managing world affairs has extended to labour migration, as witnessed by worsening xenophobic critiques of ‘globalists’. These were crystallised in rightwing-populist victories in three 2016 elections – Brexit, Trump and Duterte (Philippines) – followed by others including Brazil, Italy and, in recent weeks, Argentina and the Netherlands.

Underlying the lack of faith in liberal elite politics is not only global policy paralysis, but far fewer prospects for younger generations. Many blame ‘stall-speed’ growth, according to the latest UN Conference on Trade and Development report, which also confesses “unequal benefits from trade integration” and, as a result, hopes for new commitments to “building resilient supply chains, supporting a just energy transition, delivering decent jobs, tackling corruption and corporate tax avoidance, and developing a secure digital infrastructure” – all of which would then deprioritise “globalisation in general, trade liberalisation specifically”.

Such hiccups in the world economic system were amplified by the US-China trade war starting in 2017 and by the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the latter case, leadership of South Africa’s five largest left-of-centre forces continue to support Moscow: the African National Congress, Communist Party, Economic Freedom Fighters and the two largest wings of organised labour – the Congress of SA Trade Unions and the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa).

Talk left, walk right

Yet the vehicle that critics of the West generally endorse is also riven with contradictions, now that the BRICS+ contain three traditional US sub-imperial allies – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – which largely remain pro-Israel.

Economically, too, sub-imperial tendencies rise. In Russia at a recent Valdai Club presentation, former BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) vice president Paulo Battista offered an unstinting autocritique of his institution and of the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) that was meant to be an alternative to the IMF: “Let me assure you that when we started out with the CRA and the NDB, there existed considerable concern with what the BRICS were doing in this area in Washington in the IMF and in the World Bank. I can testify to that because I was IMF Executive Director for Brazil. As time went by, however, people in Washington relaxed, sensing perhaps that we were going nowhere.”

Nowhere different, to be more precise. Hence in spite of talk-left critique of the West, there is a walk-right coherence with Washington’s sustenance of corporate power, within a multilateral agenda that the West and BRICS+ both generally support.

The overall aim of this fused imperial/sub-imperial managerialism, e.g. in the G20 and multilateral institutions, remains the extension of the principles and practices of commodification into all aspects of human life and nature, amplified by Big Data, rising surveillance capacity, artificial intelligence and other new technologies.

Even when global public goods are urgently needed, such as removing intellectual property from renewable energy innovations, or in pandemic vaccine treatment and management, the World Trade Organisation imposes a decisive veto, even when India and South Africa requested a waiver to address Covid-19 – a stance they retreated from in mid-2022 when Brazil, Russia and China did not help overcome European Big Pharma resistance.

The imperial/sub-imperial assimilation process has long corresponded with the interpenetration of business – and a newly-confident Western-BRICS+ elite with tax-haven protection and multiple citizenships – based on a near-universally adopted ideology: the neoliberal ‘Washington Consensus’: austerity, privatisation, deregulation, outsourcing, casualisation, market-based public policy and a myriad of public-private pilfering techniques.

In the case of environmental management, the ideology combines faith in (untrustworthy) technology and (chaotic carbon) markets. As for social policy, attempts to establish social pacts conclusively failed; a new threat can be found in ‘financial inclusion’ strategies to leverage cash welfare grants through collateralised microfinance debt encumbrance, as innovated in an extremely predatory manner here in South Africa a decade ago by the new World Bank president, Ajay Banga (then Mastercard CEO).

In this profitable context, BRICS+ countries’ firms will continue to rely upon Washington-Geneva-New York institutions so they can extract profits up and down the global value chain, where Shanghai-Mumbai-Johannesburg-Sao Paulo capital often does the dirty work of extraction and manufacture, albeit rarely gaining the lion’s share of surplus, which heads into Western R&D, marketing and financing vaults.

There are, though, two exceptions to multilateral mission failure to record. First, the 1987 banning of chemical emissions that were destroying the ozone layer. A similar ban on the main sources of CO₂ and methane is what the UN should have aimed for in Dubai, but didn’t, due to the adverse balance of forces.

Second, the UN Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was, thanks to South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign – alongside international allies like Medicins sans Frontiers and US-based AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power – vital to raising local life expectancy from 54 in 2004 to 65 just before Covid hit.

Those two internationalist approaches to global public goods provide inspiration. Other lessons of progressive internationalism include South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, in which the racist power bloc of white state and capital was weakened in the mid-1980s thanks to both local protest and international sanctions. Democracy was then won here – even if socio-economic and environmental conditions worsened, precisely because far too much elite hope was from the early 1990s invested in a world market and global governance system now at break point.

Patrick Bond is Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Social Change at UJ