Vijay Prashad. The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. Forward by Boutros Boutros-Ghali. London and New York: Verso, 2012.
Correct ideas are never sufficient; they are not believed or enacted simply because they are right. They become the ideas of the time only when they are wielded by those who have a united belief in their own power, using it in ideological and institutional struggles that, in turn, consolidate their social authority.
- Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations
On 15 November 1975, the leaders of the newly formed G7 met at Chateau de Rambouillet, the French President’s summer residence located thirty miles southwest of Paris. The G7 had formed two years earlier when George Schultz, then US Treasury Secretary, had invited his peers from West Germany, France, and the UK to coordinate economic policy among the allies. Japan, Italy, and Canada were added later. Lesser known perhaps than the Mt. Pellerin Society gathering, the birthplace of neoliberalism, it was the forces unleashed at Rambouillet that shaped the dynamics of the last quarter of the twentieth century.
A major topic for discussion was the troublesome Third World Movement, which had turned the UN General Assembly into a forum for airing the grievances of the global South. A year earlier, this movement had the audacity to present the New International Economic Organization (NIEO), a series of proposals for restructuring the global economy in a more democratic and equitable fashion for South development, something deemed unacceptable by the US. The Rambouillet meeting was devoted in part to discussing and designing the counter-attack to the threat from the South.
Beginning in 1975 and continuing throughout the 1980s, the US government, with its allies in tow and aided by the crippling debt crisis of the early 1980s, went on a political and economic (and military) rampage to impose a very different world order than that envisioned by the NIEO. Through structural adjustment, conditionalities, and, ultimately, the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the global economy was made safer for multinational corporations through a war waged at the policy and ideological level. It was a frontal assault against labor in the interests of capital.
Almost four decades since the Rambouillet meetings, the South appears to be once more on the rise. Hardly a day goes by without the European and North American business press citing the increasing clout of China and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). The UNDP’s 2013 Human Development Report Rise of the South follows a series of reports by other UN organizations, as well as the World Bank and even the WTO, highlighting similar trends.
Those two moments, and everything in between, are masterfully documented in Vijay Prashad’s latest book, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. The book is essential reading for understanding the historical background, as well as the ambiguities and contradictions, of the present moment.
Prashad’s book, too rich to fully summarize in a short space, explores a series of crucial questions for students of the global economy. How does the current rise of the South differ from the one that prompted the Rambouillet meetings? Does the rise of the South offer the promise of an alternative development model, or is it simply “neoliberalism with Southern characteristics”? What has been the role of left governments in Latin America and women’s social movements throughout the world in fighting neoliberalism? To what extent can gatherings such as the World Social Forum deliver on its theme of “Another World Is Possible”?
The Poorer Nations should be read side-by-side with Prashad’s other monumental work, The Darker Nations, which documents the rise of the Third World Movement in the post-War period. Some of this history has been extensively written about and is well known. However, histories of twentieth-century capitalism and neoliberalism have often dwelled on the global North, with little attention to the role that social movements and political alliances emerging from the global South played in these dynamics. The story of the South is often treated as residual or derived, if it is included at all.
Prashad is a careful and sympathetic historian of third worldism, but is also equally aware of its contradictions and limitations. In Prashad’s books—and The Poorer Nations is no exception—one also finds the stories and struggles of the Third World from the viewpoint of its victims, most often the rural peasantry. He shows how liberalization, deregulation, and privatization triumphed, because they were also embraced and pushed by rising South elites, at times with much greater zeal than their patrons. As Prashad states, “the elites took refuge behind the IMF, allowing it to take blame for policies that would otherwise been politically unappetizing.” Of course, the ideological push by the US was uncompromising and duplicitous. It involved rewriting the history of twentieth-century capitalist development in the periphery as one of free-markets rather than state-based development. Japanese economists looked on with horror as their country’s history, and the economic model they had been proud of, was erased by US officials. "A fantasy history had been grafted onto the Japanese story and it was being sold to the rest of the South as reality.”
A key part of Prashad’s book is a detailed discussion of the South Commission that was established in 1987 and led by Julius Nyerere (who, ironically, was also at Mt. Pelerin), which published its final report, “The Challenge to the South,” in 1990. Seeking a collective response by the South to the Northern push, the Commission ended up being, in Prashad’s words, the “last gasp” of the Third World movement.
Prashad tells this history through unearthing rare archives documenting the South Commission’s work, even locating Oxford Press reviews of the first draft of “The Challenge to the South,” complete with its disparaging remarks about the inclusion of “neo-colonialism” when it was obviously “wrong domestic policies in the South” that caused the debt crisis. Through a social history of the document, Prashad shows how the disappointingly timid final outcome was a result of power struggles and personality clashes. The weakening and defeat of the Third World Movement meant the rise to the fore of neoliberal-minded Southern elites and technocrats, who looked with disgust and disparagement at the Third Worldists’ ideas.
However, just as third world leaders were accepting defeat, the Southern masses were rising. For it was also during those critical years that resistance to the ravages of neoliberalism passed on to increasingly radical social and peasant movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, which form the focus of the last section of Prashad’s book.
Chapter four of the book charts the rise of the anti-globalization movement, starting with the Venezuelan Caracazo, to the New Year’s Day Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) revolution in Mexico, to the World Social Forum. In addition to arguing that the rise of left governments in Latin America was itself facilitated by the strong social movements that emerged in the wake of the debt crisis, Prashad also shows how the international women’s movement was central in the struggle against neoliberalism, from indigenous women’s organizations to Botswana’s Emag Basadi Women’s Association. For every “ministerial” gathering (such as the 1995 UN Beijing conference), there was a grassroots gathering of civil society and social movements, be it unions, peasant movements, or indigenous women’s organizations.
Prashad also includes an illuminating critique of the World Social Forum, while arguing for its importance as a “process and not as an event or even a party,” of connecting and contemplating alternatives rather than actual building of counter-hegemonies. Prashad, without dismissing the analytical and ideological importance of internationalism, argues that the most effective coalitions of resistance remain located within states, because peasant organizing and land rights, key struggles in the global South, remain formulated around national laws, and because the immediate struggles of people cluster around improving their living conditions.
It goes without saying that Prashad’s book is a must read for development and international studies, but it should also be essential reading in American and European studies curricula.