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Multitudes, horizontal spontaneities, whatever

December 28, 2011

Art from Poder360º.

THE RISING BRICS. It is difficult to come by a news item about South America and the economy that doesn’t include the phrase ‘Brazil rising’ in it. When I did a Google search for the term a few months ago I yielded 46,100,000 results. Arguably ‘Brazil rising’ has become as much a packaged, catch-all term as ‘China rising’ in the 1980s, with significant socio-political differences. (The news items rarely get that far.) Brazil is a rising food power in a hungry world as the number one exporter of beef, chicken, soy, sugar, orange juice, and coffee (it is also ‘rising’ in pork). When Christine Lagarde was anticipated to lead the IMF, her first and immediate stop along a several BRICS-nation tour was Brazil. Not to be cast into obsolescence 60 Minutes filmed a highly circulated segment called ‘Brazil’s Rising Star‘ in which the ‘country of the future’ seemed to be finally arriving.

The term BRIC was coined in 2001 by Jim O’Neill, Chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. The ‘Goldman Sachs rock star’ economist (that’s what he’s called on the front book cover) has since written The Growth Map: Economic Opportunity in the BRICS and Beyond and used the occasion to turn another coinage, ‘growth markets.’

Who are the lucky risers in these emergent wicker baskets of potential? According to salivating financial investment firms, they are not so much the ’80 percent of the world’s population of six billion people’ (or affable mass that make up the Morgan Stanley Capital International Emerging Markets index) themselves as they are the fortunate few who can tap into their production and purchasing power. (The MSCI index includes not only the Riser in Chief Brazil but Chile, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Hungary, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand and Turkey.)

These firms tout resource-heavy ‘growth markets’ as blessed avenues for investment portfolios for reasons that can be readily summarized: rapid urbanization, loads of new consumers, and high exporting potential. (If you are a major beverage producer, an emerging market would not only present a novel manufacturing enterprise but a bushel of high-volume customers to whom you can aggressively promote your fizzy product.)

But it doesn’t stop there. Growth markets also present an opportunity for brandishing corporations as creators of ‘social citizens.’ A little of this goes a long way. Instituto Coca-Cola Brasil, for example, says it was founded with the idea of expanding public education. In return:

O crescimento das vendas da Coca-Cola em mercados emergentes como China, Índia e Brasil ajudou a companhia a registrar um aumento de 55% no lucro do quarto trimestre, embora os negócios na América do Norte continuem sendo pressionados pela fraqueza no consumo.

Coca-Cola’s sales growth in emerging markets like China, India and Brazil helped the company record a 55% growth in profits in the fourth quarter, even as business in North America continue to be pressured by weakness in consumption. (My translation.)

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There is a lot to criticize and discuss but I fear that few are doing this issue justice.

And this is where I shift gears to a very brief reading of Mike Davis’ recent New Left Review editorial on global upswells. (It is written about 2011 but set in various parts of the 19th and 20th centuries, give or take a few passages.) I read more than a tinge of heady populism in Davis’ divinations and after thinking about it aloud on Twitter for awhile (thanks to everyone who engaged with my crude first impressions, though what follows continues to be more of a start than an adequacy) I wish to connect it to the skewed but prevailing discourse on the rising BRICS.

Davis isn’t shy about projecting the BRICS—never you mind their colonial pre-histories and relatively new reach toward self-determination—as anti-revolutionary.

Marx blamed California—the Gold Rush and its resultant monetary stimulus to world trade—for prematurely ending the revolutionary cycle of the 1840s. In the immediate aftermath of 2008, so-called BRICs became the new California. Airship Wall Street fell from the sky and crashed to earth, but China kept flying, with Brazil and Southeast Asia in tight formation. India and Russia also managed to keep their planes in the air. The resilient levitation of the BRICs astounded investment advisors, economic columnists and professional astrologers—all of them proclaiming that China, or India, could now hold up the world with one hand, or that Brazil would soon be richer than Spain.

With Tunisia and Egypt beheaded—again, never you mind that Brazil (and India’s) transformations preceded the 2011 MENA uprisings (which Davis, who knows better, nauseatingly calls a ‘Spring’)—his true revolutionaries are the ‘200 million Chinese factory workers, miners and construction labourers [who] are the most dangerous class on the planet.’ While there is more than enough anti-revolutionary blame to go around it appears that Davis wishes to pin it, through osmosis, on Lula, Dilma, Indian President Pratibha Patil, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, among others. Millions of Brazilian workers unionized and afforded passable health care is a revolutionary deterrent. The as-yet largely dormant Chinese workers are our true revolutionary salvation.

Another issue is that Davis juggles two or three global narrative frameworks (if we focus solely on his 20th-century analogies, which he readily admits get stretched ‘to the breaking point’). Framing the late and post-1990s environ on the floundering results of 1968, the Cold War, and the Eurozone disaster means one is forced into viewing the global South as a sideline geography to the cartographic duels of the Old Guard global North.

For example, on Israel/Palestine, Davis writes that Israel is an ‘obsolete outpost of the Cold War,’ which would be risible (just look at their architecture!) were it not highly misconceived. The active and repressive presence of the British military in Palestine in the early 20th century is but one possible beginning whose extra-narrative thread gets lost in the Western/Eastern Bloc enmity that Davis presupposes on nearly everything. In fact, nearly the entirety of Davis’ global South narrative is read from the perspective of Cold War dissolution, anti-revolutionary reformism, and party systems. His casual, throwaway dismissive sums up Marxism’s ‘outreach problem’ beautifully: ‘”multitudes”, horizontal spontaneities, whatever.’

From the Financial Times review of The Growth Map:

Mr O’Neill has little time for western criticism of Russian authoritarianism or one-party rule in China. He quotes an American businessman recounting a line from a Chinese person, who had said: ‘What’s the big deal about voting? In the US everyone can do it and only half the people do. If voting were that great a thing, like sex for example, everyone would do it.’

Voracious capitalist henchmen like O’Neill only see ’emerging growth markets’ in the global South. Twentieth-century Marxists like Davis only see failed socialism. Both are wrong. We should approach every prognosis, projection, or prediction about the so-called BRICS with a heavy dose of skeptical smelling salts. Davis—no mainstream economist—is an excellent example of why.
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