Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, with a preface from Boutros Boutros Ghali. London and New York: Verso and New Delhi: LeftWord, 2013.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Vijay Prashad (VP): When I finished The Darker Nations, I felt that the last section was not adequate. That book, published in 2007, told the story of the Third World Project from 1927-8 (the League Against Imperialism meeting in Brussels) to 1983 (the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Delhi). It gave an account of the complex and hopeful elements of the Project—the fight to create space for political sovereignty, economic development, and social justice. The Project was contradictory, rife with all kinds of problems. But its undoing, I suggested in The Darker Nations, came less from its own contradictions and more from that of changes in the global architecture, namely the slow decline of the USSR bloc and the rise of a more confident North Atlantic bloc, institutionalized in the G7 (1974). But the last bit, the collapse of the Project, was told in haste and it appeared to be without a dynamic that led any further; it implied that the defeat was final, and that there was no hope for the rejuvenation of a Southern agenda.
The Poorer Nations takes up the story from the OPEC price hike in 1973, alongside the New International Economic Order (NIEO) debate of that year and the formation of the G7 the following year, through to the defeat of the Third World Project, to the formation of the BRICS group and the transformations in the South from below—including the Bolivarian initiative and the Arab Spring. It fills in the story left hanging at the end of The Darker Nations.
As well, The Poorer Nations finishes for me the project of telling the history of the contemporary world (the past hundred years) from the standpoint of the South. The perspective of these two books is that of the South—its investments and its contradictions, of course in terms of its relationship with the rest of the world and itself. It is not the view from Washington or Moscow, London or Tokyo—it is the view from the other side, as it were. I wanted to do this as a counter to the kind of global histories being produced, whose globality masks the Northern perspective and interests of much of this history-writing.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
VP: The Poorer Nations offers three different considerations:
(1) That the development agenda of the post-war period was done away with by the demise of Northern liberalism, the collapse of the Third World Project, the emergence of new technologies of globalization (satellites, internet, container ships), and by the New International Property Order put forward by the G7 through the new trade regimes negotiated in the 1980s.
(2) That the South began to focus its potential on the economic growth of its “locomotives,” notably the demographically large countries of China, India, Brazil, and South Africa—with the idea that these locomotives, through the concept of South-South cooperation, would pull along the rest of the South. The North, it was seen by the 1980s, had ceased to be the South’s locomotive. Other trains were necessary. This is the origin of the dynamic that leads through the IBSA Dialogue (India, Brazil, South Africa) in 2003 to the BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in 2009. I tell this story through the use of the South Commission archives; it is the first use of those archives.
(3) That the strategy of the “South from above” (BRICS, et. seq.) is limited by its own commitments to Neoliberalism With Southern Characteristics. I look at the potential in the “South from below,” paying particular attention to the Bolivarian experiments, the potential of slums, and the limitations of internationalism in the face of a growing regionalism and multi-polarity.
J: How does your work connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
VP: This book is a direct result of the work I had done in The Darker Nations, as I have already indicted.
But it also derives from the work I have been doing for LeftWord Books in India for almost a decade—a series called Dispatches, which charts the experiments in the South against neoliberal policy frameworks. The first volume, Dispatches from Latin America (co-edited with Teo Ballve and also available through South End Press) came out in 2006; it was a useful primer on the complex of developments in the hemisphere, including the powerful emergence of the Bolivarian project. The second volume, Dispatches from Pakistan (co-edited with Qalandar Bux Memon and Madiha Tahir and soon to be out from University of Minnesota Press) came out in 2012, and Dispatches from the Arab Revolt (co-edited with Paul Amar and soon to be out as well from Minnesota) will come in 2013. These all helped me to understand the potential of a “South from below.”
The general narrative that I worked out in Darker Nations and now in Poorer Nations provided the backdrop to my book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, which was a more surface manifestation of the more complex issues that are analyzed in these two books.
I am lucky that I do not have to seek foundation grants to do my work. My research is funded entirely by our household’s wages and savings, and through the use of holidays, as well as by my journalistic work, where I am often given payment to travel to events that I cover in this book. The lack of foundation grants is of course a monetary disadvantage, but the other advantages (including freedom of perspective and of narrative) are overwhelmingly important to me. So this book also comes out of the paid journalism work I have done for Frontline and The Hindu (based in Chennai, India) as well as Asia Times (based in Bangkok). Most of the other periodicals do not pay money, but they give me the opportunity to experiment with ideas, and to therefore interact with those who wish to sharpen the analysis or add more information. This has been invaluable.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
VP: I am eager for this book to be read by scholars, of course, but also by people who work in the UN world—the note by Boutros Boutros Ghali that opens the book reassures me that its message intersects with the kind of re-assessment at work among many people who work in the international institutions. The last chapter is an assessment not only of Bolivarianism and slum politics, but also of the World Social Forum, so I am interested in seeing what international activists make of the critical remarks toward internationalism. I am very interested in the emergent multi-polar regionalism—and am heartened to already learn from many in the international institutions that this is precisely what they assume is the direction of contemporary history.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
VP: I am currently in Delhi, working on a project that first broke ground fifteen years ago: an Encyclopedia of the Indian Left. This is a LeftWord project, with a small team at work to create a multiple volume encyclopedia that collates the work of the Left—from socialists to the Maoists—from the 1920s to the present. The first volume is on people who made a decisive impact on the Indian Left; we will have entries on about four hundred names. It is a real treat to reconstruct lives lost and to elaborate on lives that have been minimized by time. The second volume will be on events.
It is out of this project that my next major historical exploration will come—a history of Indian communism. I have begun to collect material for this project, which is likely to take at least a decade. It will open in the 1920s with the founding of the Indian communist party and lead to the present, with the first volume likely to end around the late 1960s or early 1970s.
In the interim, I am doing a short book on the new international landscape, which will be utterly derivative of The Poorer Nations. This book is going to take the example of India-Iran relations to show how we have moved some way from the architecture of US primacy (1990s-2000s) toward the architecture of multi-polar regionalism. I have written a long essay on this, parts of which appeared in Jadaliyya last year, and will be extended it while I am in Delhi and then next year in Beirut.
J: What methodologies did you use in your research for this book?
VP: The Poorer Nations relied upon two forms of material: archives of the various commissions and international institutions. I was the first to use the South Commission’s archives, but I also used the archives of the Brandt Commission, those of the various leaders of the G7, and of course those in the South. The second set of materials was interviews with participants in this process. Important among these were members of the staff of the South Commission (such as Branislav Gosovic).
Excerpt from The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South
[From Chapter Four]
The Caracazo began in the barrios of Caracas, from where people marched into the city center to loot from the rich and vent their anger. Rage was the dominant emotion. Such frustration anchored the Bolivarian project, taking it to victory in 1998. Since then, the people of the Venezuelan slums have formed committees to manage their neighborhoods and to ensure that they bargain for their part of the social wealth. Dissatisfaction persists, and so does crime. The social goods from the new regime do not flow as quickly as it should and could. Older obligations to class and state prevent the slums from getting their due. That is what makes La Piedrita in the Caracas neighborhood of 23 de Enero so complex: one day this “gang” seems to be a Chavista brigade and the next day Chavez calls its leader a terrorist. Down the street are the Alexis Vive Collective and the Coordinadora Simon Bolivar, which are more reliably Chavista. In the full light of the Bolivarian project, the slumlands are no longer simply the badlands. They are also places of organization, with radio stations and food kitchens, community organizations, and health clinics. They teem with life, and, in the context of the Bolivarian project, are flourishing.
The name of the 23 de Enero neighborhood refers to 23 January 1958—the date when the president of Venezuela, Marcos Perez Jimenez, was rousted from his seat by a popular rebellion. It is fitting that this restive area bears the name of that uprising. It is not uncommon in the large slumlands that dominate the great cities of the Third World Project for districts to adopt the names of monumental events. In Baghdad, after the coup that brought the Nasserite general Abdul Karim Qassim to power in 1958, the regime addressed the severe housing shortage by erecting housing in an area called al-Tharwa, “the Revolution.” It became a bastion of the Iraqi Communist Party, just as Beirut’s southern suburbs (dahiyeh ) were home to workers who joined the Lebanese Communist Party, or Bombay’s Girangaon (“mill village”) contained the workers and families who belonged to the Communist Party of India and its mass organizations.
Until the 1980s, residents in these working-class districts worked in industrial enterprises and belonged to trade unions that organized them at the point of production. Mass organizations and the Communist Parties then built political bases in the residential areas. The tidal wave of globalization swept away the older industrial forms—the factories that once employed the residents in these nationalist projects. With the factories went the unions, who tried to hold on in fierce fights against the closing down of their plants and the threatened loss of housing that followed. Obstinate traditions of protest won many of these communities the right to remain where they were, even as the upkeep of their neighborhoods was no longer the role of the old industries, but had not passed fully to the state.
As the crisis in agriculture struck the countries of the South, more and more people migrated into its major cities. Many came to work in the construction projects unleashed by neoliberalism: the shopping malls and freeways, the new luxury apartment complexes and international airports. There was little or no worker housing, so that such workers lived on the land they worked, or else built “temporary” homes on public land that became the slums abutting the shining cities they erected. Bombay’s population grew from 4.4 million in 1950 to 19.9 million in 2004, while Mexico City grew from 2.9 million to 22.1 million in the same period. In 2003, the UN estimated that one in five billion people on the planet lived in slums. “Instead of being a focus for growth and prosperity,” the UN’s HABITAT report noted, “the cities have become a dumping ground for a surplus population working in unskilled, unprotected and lowwage informal service industries and trade.” This informal sector, which with the agricultural crisis was the engine of slum growth, was “a direct result of liberalization.”
Informal work and informal housing had their own limitations. The former meant that politics in the realm of production was severely curtailed. Union efforts in the informal sector have been concerted but futile. The compulsions of bare life in the slums forced its residents into various forms of political action. They need to ensure a supply of water and electricity, some security of tenure in their homes, and even access to education and healthcare. The politics of consumption has emerged as the focus of a significant amount of slumland political activity. The main framework, from the shack dwellers’ movement in South Africa to the Assembly of the Poor in Thailand, has been the idea of urban citizenship, or perhaps more properly rights to the urban slum. The primary demand for urban citizenship can be gleaned in the demands for the redistribution of social goods and public space. This can be seen in the widespread refusals to pay for city services: forty percent of the residents in Beirut’s Hayy-Assaloum have refused to pay their electrical bills, and large numbers of the residents of Accra’s Sodom and Gomorrah slum have refused to pay their water bills. The secondary demand from the slums is to be left alone. Slum-dwellers frequently build their own homes (what in Brazil is called autoconstrução). State intrusion typically brings bulldozers and policemen in search of a bribe, and is thus best avoided. Well-conceived plans for development from the slumdwellers are ignored—for example, sanitation plans developed by the Orangi slum-dwellers of Karachi. When the state intervenes to “better” the slumlands, it has often meant disaster for the already perilous existence of its residents. “Modernity,” as Asef Bayat puts it, “is a costly affair.”
[Excerpted from The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, by Vijay Prashad. © Vijay Prashad 2013, published by Verso Books, reprinted with permission of the author. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]