Vijay Prashad’s The Poorer Nations provides a powerful and well-researched historical account of the “Global South,” to use the conventional term for formerly colonized nations in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Continuing Prashad’s narrative of The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (2007), which discussed the period from the 1920s to the 1980s, The Poorer Nations tells the story of how the “Third World Project” of state-led development failed in the face of the neoliberal assault. Prashad explains, with characteristic clarity, passion, and humor, how today’s stark division of richer and poorer countries came to be, and he tracks neoliberalism from its rise in the 1970s to its disastrous rule today.
Defining neoliberalism broadly as “a fairly straightforward campaign by the propertied classes to maintain or restore their position of dominance,” Prashad details how the “Global North”—the wealthier, imperialist nations, led by Western Europe and the Unites States—came to dominate the rest of the world using a variety of policies, institutions, and tactics. These processes wiped away any hope for international equality and peace that may have emerged after the decolonization of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. Prashad, nevertheless, ends on a hopeful note, discussing the many forms of resistance that have emerged around the world since the 1990s, and declaring that the untenable contradictions of neoliberalism are opening up new possibilities for “the bloc of the People,” across national borders.
Prashad’s scorching critique of the dominant capitalist countries emerges full-fledged in The Poorer Nations, revealing how diplomacy, and not just all-out war, has always been a key aspect of imperialist policy. Shattering any illusions about the neutrality of the United Nations and other international institutions, Prashad shows that they have been sites for the power struggle between nations, with American military and economic power ultimately dictating the terms. Southern governments did not give up without a fight, Prashad contends—but any gains were only temporary—as the juggernaut of Northern capital flattened all protective walls.
In the book’s first three chapters, Prashad exposes how the imperialist powers, particularly the US, manipulated the debt crises of the 1970s to set back the Third World Project. It used the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) to pry open developing nations, set up exploitative Special Economic Zones to exploit cheap labor, and enforced northern capital’s rule through defense of its intellectual property rights. All of these measures devastated the Global South’s working class and peasant majority.
In this context, Prashad analyzes the Brandt Commission, the South Commission, and the formation of the BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). The Brandt Commission represented the last gasp of northern liberalism and social democracy and attempted to counter the tidal wave of neoliberalism to put forward a vision to ameliorate global inequalities. Similarly, the South Commission facilitated intraregional dialogue to resist the imperial assault on the Third World Project. Over time, northern politicians and bureaucrats responded to and ultimately defeated these formations.
In Prashad’s research of the South Commission, we see how the relentless assault of imperialist nations transformed the very demands that politicians from the Global South put forward. Whereas in 1974, southern nations had called for a “New International Economic Order” (NIEO) that would allow for some global equity in economic development—a vision that politicians like Henry Kissinger defeated through skillful maneuvering and divide-and-conquer tactics—the South Commission, and later formations of the 1980s and 1990s, simply asked for a seat at the table. As Prashad puts it: “People-centered development [was] subordinated to the neoliberal agenda, with deregulation and good governance as its main pillars.”
The NIEO was really the last hurrah of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Third World Project. Bristling after the defiant 1967 and 1973 oil embargos by member nations of the Organization of Petroleum Countries (OPEC) and angered by the NIEO proposal, the dominant countries resorted to a whole host of undemocratic and illegal maneuvers—forming the G7 between 1973 and 1975, taking over UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), turning the UN Security Council into an executive body for the UN, deliberately working to split NAM and OPEC countries, and driving all liberal-minded politicians and bureaucrats out of international bodies like the UN, the IMF, and the WB. Actions on the diplomatic and policy front paralleled imperialist assaults on elected but unfriendly governments in the South, with the US-backed overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende in 1973 as a prominent example. Four revolutions in the late 1970s—Angola, Afghanistan, Iran, and Nicaragua—pushed the US to an aggressive militarism, and all UN discussions “became secondary to the might of arms.”
Prashad exposes the racist arrogance that accompanied imperialist dominance. In 1969, for instance, Kissinger blatantly declared: “Nothing important can come from the South. The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, crosses over to Washington, and then goes to Tokyo. What happens in the South is of no importance.” Irving Kristol wrote sneeringly for The Wall Street Journal in 1975 (referring to the Kenyan freedom fighters called ‘Mau Mau’ by the British): “[W]hen the poor start ‘mau-mauing’ their actual or potential benefactors, when they begin vilifying them, insulting them, demanding as a right what is not their right to demand—then one’s sense of self-respect may take precedence over one’s self-imposed humanitarian obligations.”
Prashad crucifies Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, linking his infamous racist diatribe against Black families in the 1965 “Moynihan Report” to his 1975 article in the neocon journal Commentary, arguing against Northern “appeasement” of the Third World, which was trying to claim the status of victimhood through demands like the NIEO proposal. Moynihan argued that poverty in the Global South was “of their own making and no one else’s,” and the richer nations need not be concerned. Prashad thus demonstrates how the American ruling class uses racism to justify its economic policies on both the foreign and domestic fronts.
My main criticism of The Poorer Nations is that it does not consistently identify southern politicians and leaders as representatives of their own nation’s ruling classes who have a material interest in expanding their own profit margins and power bases at the expense of the peoples of the South.
To be sure, The Poorer Nations repeatedly affiliates itself with the people. Prashad emphasizes, from the very first pages, that fundamental change will only come from the “South ‘from below’” and not from the “South ‘from above,’” which is busy developing “neoliberalism with Southern characteristics.” The entire fourth and final chapter is devoted to the “South from below,” discussing the various grassroots movements and developments in the South that have erupted over the past few decades, including Venezuela and the “pink revolutions” of Latin America, the World Social Forum movement, the forceful emergence of indigenous people, women, and environmental activists onto the world stage, the “IMF riots,” and the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.
Despite Prashad’s awareness of class conflicts and inequalities within the Global South, however, the book leaves readers with a sense that when the southern ruling classes fight northern ones, they are fighting heroic struggles on behalf of the entire Global South, and that when they are defeated, they have been pushed towards anti-people policies against their will. This sense is conveyed at two levels. The first—a staple of the Communist Party tradition in which Prashad locates himself—is the implication that the model of state-led capitalist development that prevailed in southern nations before neoliberalism was progressive and people-centered. The history of exploitation and oppression within those nations, from the 1940s to the present, suggests otherwise.
The second—and Prashad himself seems ambivalent about this—is that however limited the challenge posed by the BRICS formation to the Global North, it ought to be recognized for its defiance. The confusion is evident in passages like the following: “The BRICS do not promise any kind of revolutionary transformation of the world order . . . Nevertheless they are the first formation in thirty years to challenge the settled orthodoxy of the Global North . . . The BRICS have their own commitments to neoliberal policies, but they are no longer willing to bend before imperial power. . . . This represents a green shoot in an arid desert.” In reality, the BRICS formation expresses the interests of the South’s capitalist classes, and therefore offers no genuine alternative for the people.
Here, we get a glimpse of how the concepts of “Global South” and “Global North” can fail dramatically to explain the world that capitalism has created. While such categories can be useful as descriptive terms—marking the fact that imperialism has created a hierarchy of capitalist nations—they can become obstacles to understanding class and social divisions within nations (Brazil devouring its poor for the World Cup preparations), stark divisions between “southern” nations (Brazil versus Haiti, South Africa versus Bangladesh), imperialist policies of southern nations (China in Uganda, India in Kashmir), and the fact that the on-again-off-again conflicts southern ruling classes have with northern ones represent the standard workings of capitalist rivalries between greater and lesser powers, not hope for ordinary people.
The Poorer Nations is a wonderful read and provides a rich history that will deepen our understanding of the processes by which ruling classes in the Global South, pressured by imperialism, betrayed the promises of the national liberation movements. In fact, the book supports a much more critical understanding of southern capitalist classes than it offers on the conceptual level.
Rather than seeing the BRICS as “locomotives of the South” that have gone off track after being bullied by imperialism, they ought to be seen as increasingly dominant economies and states that are willing to work with and sometimes against imperialist powers to exploit their own people and oppress anyone anywhere in order to maintain and grow their profits. It is the ongoing struggle of the people of the south against the neoliberalism of both northern and southern ruling classes—combined with the struggle of the people living in the imperialist countries against the same enemy—that represents the real green shoots we should be cultivating.