PI Briefing | No. 34 | Dismantling Northern hegemony BRICS by BRICS

The BRICS provides a telling case study of the fundamental changes underway in the international system.
In the Progressive International's 34th Briefing of 2023, we look at the BRICS process and its meaning for progressive forces around the world. If you would like to receive our Briefing in your inbox, you can sign up using the form at the bottom of this page.

Hegemony is the phenomenon whereby one group leads the whole by projecting its interests as the collective interest. For a long time, the international system has functioned under the leadership of the Global North, particularly the richest and most heavily-armed North American and European states.

This hegemony is so powerful that it is often not noticed. Students at Global North universities studying other parts of the world usually actually study US and EU strategic interests in those other parts of the world, which are passed off as common sense. The media with the biggest global reach frames its reporting of the world through the lens of Global North interests. But our world is changing and that hegemony is being challenged.

The BRICS, whose summit took place in South Africa this week, provides a telling case study. The term BRICs (lowercase S at the time) was first coined in a 2001 report authored by Jim O’Neill, then Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs’ head of economic research. In the paper for the firm, O’Neill pointed out that Brazil, Russia, India and China were the largest “emerging markets” (itself a term of capitalist hegemony, as countries are defined by their value to external investors) and set to grow faster than G7 countries. He argued that international economic policy-making, and in particular the G7, should be “adjusted to incorporate BRICs representatives.”

It is disputed whether O’Neill personally came up with the term BRICs or whether it was his research assistant, a young Indian woman called Roopa Purushothaman. She is now chief economist to India’s Tata group, whose estimated value is now around three times Goldman Sachs’ $106 billion market capitalisation. Another example of hegemony and its unravelling perhaps.

O’Neill’s predictions about economic growth proved accurate, but his prescription for greater inclusion in geoeconomic management was not. Nevertheless, what started as a shorthand for Wall Street investment bankers to talk about rapidly growing economies began to take real form.

In 2006, the foreign ministers of the four countries met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. In 2009, the presidents of the four states: Lula, Dimitry Medvedev, Manmohan Singh and Hu Jintao held the group’s first formal summit. The following year, South Africa was admitted to the group, helpfully adding an S to the acronym and representation from the African continent.

As a grouping, BRICS is still young but there are signs it is developing quickly, with this week’s summit marking a potential turning point. Mainly excluded from the US and EU-dominated system of global economic governance, BRICS is developing its own through the New Development Bank. Under the leadership of former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, who took over as chair of the Bank earlier this year, the NDB looks set to expand its role as a rival to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The Bank has an authorised capital of $100 billion, which it lends to countries for development projects and infrastructure without the IMF’s austerity conditionalities. Interestingly, at the Summit this week, Rousseff announced her intention to issue around 30% of loans in local currencies, reducing the exchange rate risk for the recipient country.

Now twenty-three other Global South states have applied to join the club, including seven of the thirteen oil-producing OPEC states. As the summit closed, six were admitted, swelling the size and economic clout of the grouping.

Much of the coverage of the summit in Western media has focused on the geopolitics of the war in Ukraine. But its attendees were focused on the major issues of geoeconomics: trade, the dollar, sanctions, development and infrastructure finance.

That’s because BRICS is not an anti-imperialist bloc, nor is it a socialist one. Indeed, according to both Xi Jinping of China and Lula of Brazil, it isn’t intended to be a bloc at all. Rather, it is a vehicle through which the global majority’s governments can express and coordinate their geoeconomic interests in a world market whose governance systems all bear the impression of Global North hegemony.

The BRICS is not a moral force. But its development is part of a historical process that sees Northern hegemony wane and splinter. That process presents opportunities for progressive forces around the world to engage with critically.

That potential space for action could open not just for Southern progressive forces but those in the North, too. Global North hegemony has not been that of all the peoples of the Global North but that of the Global North’s ruling class. With that shaking, the majority in the Global North could join hands with the majority in the Global South to construct a new world on more equal terms for all.

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Image: Place markers in preparation for the Bandung Conference, 1955. Photo by Howard Sochurek.

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