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Prashad at Large

Paul Buhle is the author of C.L.R. James: The Artist as Revolutionary and Tim Hector: Caribbean Radical.
Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (New York: Verso, 2012), 280 pages, $26.95, paperback.

Vijay Prashad is a literary phenomenon. Not only a political scholar and Chair of South Asian History at Trinity College, he is best known to web crawlers from Detroit to Delhi as a keen polemicist, political commentator, and culture critic at large—writing on everything from literature and sports to comics. Even among the younger generation of intellectuals and brilliant writers from the South Asian subcontinent, who have in the last decades so richly replenished the left in U.S. academia, Prashad stands out. He is rarely dour, even describing the worst of circumstances with flair. Prashad is altogether serious, but his prose floats along and we float with it, thoroughly enjoying the trip.

Former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali sets the tone in his introduction to The Poorer Nations, arguing that the moment has arrived for scholars from the underdeveloped world of plundered resources and impoverished people to make the necessary statements themselves, rather than leaving that work to the first world left. Boutros-Ghali makes one other important point: that Prashad is hard at work rediscovering the hopes of earlier decades, the moment of anti-colonialist hopes, of common feeling among various nationalities and nations freeing themselves and looking forward to a kind of communitarian developmental process that was, often enough, called “socialism.”

Prashad at once recalls the Haitian Revolt of the “Black Jacobins” as changing world history, and the Russian Revolution as sending out the call, on behalf of most of the world, for Peace, Bread and Land—a set of demands that the West (or North) was never going to accept willingly. Instead, as Daniel P. Moynihan heard from Henry Kissinger, the third world projects proposed at Bandung in 1955 by delegates of the developing world simply had to be turned back. The United Nations would be used or manipulated through various departments into the proper control of the South by the logic of business. UN Ambassador Moynihan put his prestige, energy, and influence to this task, albeit at vast human and ecological cost, and not all of it spent (or wasted) in the South alone.

The hoped-for New International Economic Order became, thereby, a New International Property Order, under many names. The hoped-for emergence of prosperous populations became the permanent austerity order. The scarcely discussed issues of ecology or sustainable development were, of course, not even on the American bipartisan agenda.

The business-first leaders did not get their way entirely, of course. There was Russia, for a while, and more than a few authentic radical, revolutionary efforts. Then—that is to say in the recent past—arrived the definitely non-radical but still formidable BRICS alliance (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Military dominance, for the present, remains in the hands of the United States and its mostly servile partners. The United Nations has not become more democratic, at least not yet. And, most painfully, Chinese leaders abandoned any vision of socialism, instead putting themselves into a different kind of drivers’ seat (with many millions more cars on China’s own roads, hastening global warming). Still, the situation for the global South is starkly different from, say, 1950 or 1980, and absolutely unstable.

The bulk of The Poorer Nations rolls out the details and implications of this overview, with great precision and lucidity. The text could be five (or ten!) times longer but the details here are convincing. For instance, Prashad analyzes the liberalism of the 1960s and ‘70s, put forward by the likes of Germany’s Willy Brandt, bridging or seeking to bridge the gap between North and South without upsetting the power balance very much; now this seems centuries away. So does the more radical version, with the Socialist International, headed by Michael Harrington, in ardent support of Jamaica’s avowedly socialist prime minister, Michael Manley. The social democratic parties of Northern Europe were still sincere and hopeful, if naïve in not yet grasping their own impending demise as working-class institutions.

The dream fell apart and, from the U.S. end, was in its most democratic promise always intended to fall apart. The Security Council substituted itself for the United Nations as decision-making body even before the 1970s, leaving the global South to debate without influence on the IMF among other bodies. The new states were to be integrated into the world economy, effectively dissolving their own economic identities and choices; the great powers could never be expected to do such a thing. Bandung raised visions of something else, traditions of egalitarianism and the promise of the early United Nations, no matter how often disappointed. The Oil Crisis and OPEC could be anti-hegemonic without being socialist in the least. But the West still had Iran’s Shah in their pocket, just the kind of regime that the Tri-Lateral Commission felt represented a different, more controllable future. Then the Shah fell.

Liberalism, including the kind represented by the Club of Rome, seeking to reduce the distance between wealthy and poor nations, was now badly out of date. Moynihan had laid out, in the pages of Commentary magazine, a different future. The third world was the problem of civilization, not really powerful but powerful enough, for instance, to suspend Apartheid-era South Africa from the United Nations. Like the black population at home, the third world had proved itself immature, irrational, incapable of responsibility. Following his lead, the United States ran over its own previous treaties as if they no longer existed. The United States claims that global efforts to control population or protect the seabeds, for instance, became improper interference with natural processes—including the “natural” expansion of transnational corporations and their influence and control in large sections of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Neoliberalism was coming of age. Unrest was a given certainty, the price of enforcement. Efforts to get around the realities, or adjust to them, might be summed up in the Brandt Report as “Global Keynesianism,” out of date at the moment when it appeared in 1979, in part because Willy Brandt disdained the expansion of military spending and arms sales, in larger part because the global poor were to be excluded from the conversation, not drawn further in. Henceforth, as Prashad puts it, the “impoverished in the South would require low-wage goods that they could afford to buy, which would themselves not be produced in the high-wage factories of the North” (73). It was a trap. Funds coming from the North to stimulate low-wage production would be absorbed quickly by rising elites of these districts, while living standards for the masses continued to fall. Scandinavia would not be created in the Tropics.

The consequences, of course, are grim and take up much of the rest of this volume. In an era when Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman became the philosopher-economists of the West’s deepest thoughts—none too deep—all resistance had to be swept aside. Going back to the days of Nyerere, the proclamation of a “strategy of solidarity” to oppose this logic was more rhetoric than practice, and as much self-defense as vision of something better for the majority of the world’s inhabitants. The South could not enter the world market on anything like an equal basis when it came to emerging technologies, and suffered a constant brain drain. Slum dwellers rising up against their rulers were crushed, perhaps just as often by self-avowed liberals as conservative governments. NGOs, created to bypass self-serving bureaucracies, usually depended upon donors who reinforced the logic of the North on issues like poverty and unemployment.

And then there were blunders that invited further micromanagement of the South. Sadam Hussein’s Iraq invading Kuwait was one of these, because the United States was as much as invited into oil country to work its will. What Prashad calls “Neoliberalism with southern Characteristics” (10) became, finally, the order of the day, one might say late in the day. The important decisions had already been made.