Idealism with a Materialist Frame

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Vijay Prashad’s latest work, The Poorer Nations (Verso 2013), is a spell-binding journey through the formative struggles of the modern Global South. It is the very apotheosis of modern rupture, the transition of the language of neoliberalism and the rise of different global hegemonies that Prashad historicizes in The Poor Nations.

Prashad dissects the process of subjection to the “geometry of power,” and moves beyond the critical analysis of finance capital toward a thoroughgoing, psychological insight into the hegemony of knowledge as it is reflected in language, itself. Shedding light on the shadowy parts of knowledge, the author uses a synthesis of discourse analysis and riveting narrative to articulate international events, social movements, groups, economies, and political assemblages.

It is difficult to grasp the full ambition of The Poorer Nations without first reading its prequel, The Darker Nations. Prashad is unequivocal: through the debt crisis and political subterfuge, the North Atlantic Countries assassinated the economic and political hopes of the Third World, creating a fractured global system of disunity, dependency, and poverty.

The response of India, Brazil, and South Africa to the AIDS crisis was to subvert TRIPS, providing important medical assistance to the dying and opening up the possibility for an alternative global hegemony. The genius of The Poorer Nations lies in the seeds planted by popular struggle during this breach of global resistance to neoliberalism.

An Epistemological Rupture?

If the South was able to become “aware of itself” by abrogating neoliberal language and deploying it towards its own goals, Prashad charts a “remarkable shift of emphasis” within that neoliberal discourse (perhaps this is what Spivak calls, “a transvaluing discursive shift”[1]). Through his intensive and exhaustive hermeneutics of global trade and the pragmatics of neoliberalism, Prashad places his finger on intellectual property, where the pulse of ideological representation precedes a shift in meaning, as the indication of a vital epistemological movement in international politics.

Prashad explains that, through the World Social Forum (WSF), voices from the international environmental and indigenous movements emerged with the women’s movement to call not only for economic equality but a different, direct approach to land, territory, self-determination, and the exploitation of extractive industry.

“The difficulty of building proper international institutions from below has everything to do with the absence of the social conditions for internationalism,” asserts Prashad. Social movements must coordinate with, through, and outside of national movements to push the framework of global revolution further to the edge of reality.

Beyond this apparatus of the WSF, the simple process of being together as a class actualizes, for Prashad, a “life-world” of land based movements and marginalized peoples, slum dwellers, peasants, indigenous peoples, and so on.[2] The usage of the word “life-world” evokes a phenomenological coherence—a kind of linking together of distant horizons to produce a shared reality.[3] It is this life-world that provides the foil to the failed “cosmology of neoliberalism”.

Prashad draws from Indian Marxist thinker, Prabhat Patnaik, to uncover the roots of this global reality. In Latin America, the distinctive emergence of Indigenous populations dispossessed by “accumulation through encroachment” mirrors the “tribal communities in India” as well as “landless farm-workers, smallholder farmers, petty producers in rural and urban areas, and the working class in much of both Africa and Asia.” This chain of resistance networks finds itself resonating in the North as the “life-world” expands in a movement of liberation. It is this chain of experience that orders the synapses of struggle against the “social order of property, propriety, and power” through the development of “the strategies, the tactics, the way forward to a place that is not what we have now”

Such a project takes up the final chapter, entitled “The Dream History of the Global South,” a meditation on the potentialities of desire in organization. How far can an International be capable of moving? For Prashad, there is no immediate answer: “The time of the impossible has presented itself. That is the message of The Poorer Nations.”

Sasha Ross

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Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, Verso (NYC: 2013).

Sasha Ross is an activist with the biodiversity group, Bark, and the coordinator of the Cascadia Office of the Earth First! Journal. His work can be found in Science and Society, Counterpunch, and the forthcoming anthology, Life in Wartime (AK Press). He is currently editing an anthology on international land-based movements.


[1] Guyatri Spivak, “A” Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, Harvard 1999. pp 219

[2] “Whether in the miserable slums of Kibera outside Nairobi or Kabul’s Chaman-e-Hazoori and Khoshal Khan Mina (which house half of Kabul’s people), or the more developed slums of Istanbul’s Sultanbeyli and Rio’s Rochina, these habitats take on the appearance of permanence. The social goods realized through patronage and the hard work of the people who live in them produce life-worlds that are no longer simply temporary.” (Prashad 275)

[3] The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, trans. David Carr, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1970, p. 149.)

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