The BRICS – A Fable for Our Time

By Immanuel Wallerstein, January 1, 2016

The story of the BRICS is a strange one. It starts in 2001 when Jim O’Neill, at that time the chairman of the Assets Management division of Goldman Sachs, the giant investment house, wrote a widely-commented article about what we have come to call “emerging economies.” O’Neill singled out four countries – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – all of whom were large enough in size and territory to have noticeable weight in the world market. He labeled them the BRICs.

O’Neill argued that their assets were growing at such a pace that they were going to overtake collectively the asset values held by the G-7 countries, which had long been the list of the wealthiest countries in the world-system. O’Neill did not say exactly when this would occur – by 2050 at the latest. But he saw the rise of the BRICs as more or less inevitable. Given his position at Goldman Sachs, he was essentially telling the clients of Goldman Sachs to shift significant parts of their investments to these four countries while their assets were still selling cheaply.

The argument caught on, including in the four countries themselves. The four BRICs decided to assume the name and create structures of annual meetings as of 2009 in order to transform their emerging economic strength into geopolitical strength. The tone of their successive collective statements was to assert the place of the South against that of the North, and especially that of the United States in the world-system. They talked of replacing the dollar as the reserve currency with a new South-based currency. They talked of creating a South-based development bank to assume many of the functions that were the purview of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. They talked of redirecting world trade flows, so as to enhance South-South exchanges.

They talked of all these things, but somehow they never quite got around to implementing these proposals. Instead, they concentrated in the 2010’s on enjoying the fruits of a high level of commodity prices, which allowed the governments of the four countries to augment significantly the income levels of their upper and middle strata, and even to increase some benefits to the lower strata.

The times seemed good, and not only for the BRICs. In 2009, South Africa managed to convince the four BRICs to admit it as a fifth member of the group. The name was changed from BRICs to BRICS, the final capital S referring to South Africa. South Africa did not really meet the economic criteria O’Neill had specified, but in terms of geopolitics, it enabled the group to say it had an African member.

Meanwhile, other countries began to show economic characteristics similar to those of the BRICS. Journalists began to speak of the MINT – Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey. Although this group also included ‘emerging’ economies, they never became a formal structure. One other country was an obvious member – South Korea. However, South Korea had already been admitted to the club of the wealthy – the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – and thus saw no need to enhance further its geopolitical status.

Then all of a sudden, the economic strength of the BRICS took a turn for the worse in the 2010s. It isn’t that the G-7 countries were growing faster again, but that the BRICS were showing lowered asset figures. The swift rise of the BRICS seemed to be vanishing.

What had happened? A look at the world-economy of the first decade of the twenty-first century shows that the world economic boom was largely driven by China’s no-holds-barred construction and industrialization drive. It had created an enormous demand for inputs of all sorts, which China got from the BRICS countries as well as elsewhere. China’s boom had been built on some shaky and reckless loan policies of the large number of regional banks that had come into existence, aided and abetted by considerable corruption. When the Chinese government sought to repair the damage, its growth rate plummeted, although it still remained relatively high.

In addition, China’s attempt to assert her geopolitical power over its neighbors in east and southeast Asia has led to accumulated tensions. Said to be part of China’s rivalry with the United States, both China and the United States have been careful not to let the rivalry go so far that it threatens the longer-run possibilities of a partnership.

China’s adjustments were immediately felt elsewhere, and especially in the other BRICS countries, which turned out to be economically shaky and therefore politically vulnerable. The dramatic fall of the world oil prices took their toll. One after the other, the BRICS found themselves in trouble, each in its own form.

Brazil’s economic policies had combined neoliberal macroeconomic policies with important transfers to the poorest third of the population – the so-called Fome Cero or Zero Hunger no longer worked. The fluid and ever-changing political alliances in the Brazilian legislature became a turbulent scene, threatening political stability. At the moment, the two main sides are trying to impeach each other’s leaders. And the image of the person who had constructed Brazil’s previously successful policies – Lula or former President Luis Inácio Cruz de Silva – is badly tarnished.

Russia’s policies of heavy investment in the military combined with state-aided economic redistribution were strongly threatened by the fall in gas and oil price. Its geopolitical assertiveness in Ukraine and the Middle East led to various kinds of boycotts that hurt its economic national income sharply.

India’s attempt to catch up, not only with the West but with China, resulted in massive ecological damage as well as the diminution of investments by its diaspora in North America and western Europe. The current government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is finding it very difficult to fulfill the promises that led to his landslide victory so recently.

In South Africa, the overwhelming majority of the African National Congress (ANC) is finally receding, as an ever-larger proportion of the electorate is too young to remember the anti-apartheid struggle. Instead, politics have become increasingly based on ethnic politics. And the ANC is threatened by an anti-White upsurge among younger voters, so foreign to the ANC’s historic non-racial policies. In addition, South Africa’s neighbors are increasingly uneasy with South Africa’s strong hand in their internal politics.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen! What remains of the geopolitical aspirations of the BRICS is anyone’s guess.