southern constellation, Bojana Piškur

narrator Bojana Piškur
term southern constellation
published September 2019, Ljubljana
affiliated institution MG+MSUM

The term, which I deliberately crossed out, is related to my long-term research on the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Southern Constellations is also the title of the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova (+MSUM). With “southern constellation” I referred to the potentiality the movement envisioned through principles such as peaceful co-existence, respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, non-aggression, and equality of its members in the period from the first NAM conference in 1961 to the ninth one in 1989, both in Belgrade. I presented the term “NAM” at the GCK seminar on geopolitics in 2015. To summarise: the NAM was a transnational political movement with a strong → emancipatory agenda, a coalition of small and middle-sized states, mostly former colonies and developing countries, as well as → liberation movements from the Global South or Third World. It was an anti-imperialist, anticolonial and antiracist movement, and as such represented the first major disruption on the Cold World map. The NAM still exists today.


Southern Constellations: The Poetics of the Non-Aligned, curated by Bojana Piškur, 7 March – 10 September 2019 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova (+MSUM), Ljubljana. Exhibition view of From Bandung to Belgrade installation by Riksa Afiaty, Iramamama, Sekarputi Sidhiwati and Syaiful Ardianto. Photo: Dejan Habicht/Moderna galerija, Ljubljana. 


After we opened the Southern Constellations exhibition in March this year I had to give the term southern constellations some “distance”. I also looked more thoroughly into the idea of constellation itself. We are familiar with the meanings of this concept in the Western tradition, and the word itself comes from the Latin constellatio. In philosophy, the term constellation denotes an important aspect of Adorno’s negative dialectics; in astronomy, it signifies the position of stars. As far back as 1,800 years ago, Ptolemy described 48 constellations. But Westerners/Northerners were first introduced to southern skies only in the 16th century, when Andrea Corsali, sailing on a Portuguese ship to India, described and drew the Southern Cross. Aboriginal people in Australia knew and had a name for the Southern Cross (Mirrabooka) long before Corsali, as did other peoples of the southern hemisphere. A constellation is therefore a hegemonic, “fixed” star pattern and as such signifies cartography, colonialism and capitalist expansion. Constellation was also the name of NASA’s cancelled space programme 2005–2009. But at the same time there exist other concepts of constellations. For example, the Incas knew “dark-cloud constellations”, and for them, the dark matter between the southern stars represented living forms, animals such as Yacana (llama), Yutu (bird), Mach’acuay (serpent).


Another concept that constantly reappeared in my research on the NAM and the Third World and demanded to be approached from a different perspective was humanism. In the 1960s and 1970s, the NAM placed humanism at the centre of its political and social agenda. It was a kind of humanism that took as its starting point the life of the peoples and societies that had been forcibly placed on the margins of the global economic, political and cultural system. It was the kind of humanism which Fanon constantly demanded in his writings (he ends his book The Wretched of the → Earth with a call that we must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and seek to create a new man[1]); it was the kind of humanism that “fuelled the Third World resistance”. But it was also the kind of humanism that became obsolete over time. It is clear that humanism as a “possibility of human becoming” simply does not suffice anymore. “The age of humanism is ending”.[2] wrote Achille Mbembe a few years ago. Instead, humans in the new humanism are “co-evolving, sharing ecosystems, life processes, genetic material, with animals and other life forms.”[3] Can the “old” humanism and humanist values, such as peace, → solidarity, and equality, that the NAM promoted still be considered emancipatory or just “naive anachronisms”?


The world has shrunk (or better: it has shrunk for some, though not for all of its inhabitants) in the past few decades, mainly because of globalisation and the rapid development of technology. But this is not something utterly new, and was predicted by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto 150 years ago: they wrote about the need for a constantly expanding market for products, cheap labour and the growing demand for natural resources. Colonialism was also a form of globalisation. It is worth reading Samir Amin’s views on globalisation in this context (his interview “Globalisation and Its Alternative”[4]), such as his views on how the old globalisation broke down in the late 1980s and how the new “global Monopoly Capitalism” has taken its place. The neoliberal globalisation has generated not only resistance in the South, but elsewhere as well because of the huge problems – the inequality – it has created.


But there was a time when economic, political and social prospects seemed different and more optimistic for the South than they have been in the last few decades (even though it is difficult to compare the economies of the South then and now). We are talking about the period between the 1960s and the 1980s when the NAM’s main focus was on the economic and political development of its member states. This trend was not only based on creating alternative political alliances (i.e. alternative mundialisation), but also on economic independence from the First World and its institutions, such as the IMF (International Monetary Fund), GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and World Bank. These institutions were fiercely attacked by developing countries (a euphemism for less developed economies that is still used today) because of their protectionist practices in favour of the developed countries. In 1979, all developing countries together had just 30 votes in the IMF, the same number as the US alone. Another example is the fluctuation of the prices of raw materials in relation to those of industrial products. If we take the 1953 index to be at 100, by 1973 it fell to under 60, which means that in 1973 almost twice as much raw materials had to be sold (that is, exported from the developing countries) than in 1953 for the same quantity of industrial products (from the developed countries).[5]


Because of such discriminatory treatment, the developing countries and the NAM created UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) in 1964, where 77 countries formed the G-77 group. Raul Prebisch (the first Secretary General of the UNCTAD) produced a report “Towards a New Trade Policy for Development”, a kind of manifesto of developing nations which is still worth reading today. Prebisch provided a critique of Western trade and aid policies, and argued for reforms of the international trading system which would benefit developing countries. At the 1973 NAM conference in Algeria, the “New International Economic Order” was established. Some of the NIEO principles were: the right to nationalise foreign economic resources, fair prices for raw materials, regulating the activities of multinational companies, providing financial assistance to developing countries (at a rate of 0.7% of the gross national income) and differentiation of developing countries (with priority given to the least developed).


From today’s perspective, the new world economic order was a kind of alternative globalisation to the First World one. All of these new constellations subsequently acquired a strong economic dimension and created new spheres of interest and exchange among countries of the NAM and the Third World. Yugoslavia and the NAM countries became allies in the process of trying to articulate how to be modern by one’s own rules, i.e. how to direct one’s own modernisation process (for example, with the use of construction companies). This was quite significant, especially in the light of Vijay Prashad’s[6] analysis of how the regimes in the new nations adopted the Enlightenment’s scientific heritage without any discussions of its cultural implications. This was problematic, he says, as it was not neutral.


These networks pretty much collapsed in the late 1980s, when global geopolitics changed significantly. The 1980s were also marked by the Third World debt crisis, which was a consequence of the 1973 oil crisis. The oil crisis resulted in sharp rises of interest rates in the Third World countries; consequently, they maximised their exports to meet their debt obligations, and the prices of raw materials dropped. The countries affected were submitted to “structural adjustments” by the World Bank and the IMF (basically, these were loans conditioned by the privatisation of state-owned industries and resources, imposing free trade, austerity programmes etc.). We have seen numerous repetitions of the same “financial rescue” scenarios since then in many countries around the world (think of Greece), and consequently the rise of new forms of dependency and colonialism (multinational companies entering states and → extracting their resources). Also, as Amin says, globalism cannot grow forever because it is not sustainable, that it why it looks towards fascism as a response for its growing weakness.


However, the NAM has not provided any alternative plans for the current geopolitical and economic situation, and that has probably been one of its greatest weaknesses in recent years. It has not been able to provide any because the structure and aspirations of its member states have changed significantly. For example, in the late 1970s, North-South trade agreements accounted for more than half of all such agreements, while today the majority of preferential trade agreements are between developing economies (China, Brazil, India, the NAM countries). But this has not resulted in lowering the inequalities in less developed countries. On the contrary, since 1980 income inequalities in those countries have been rising steadily while public expenditures (equal access to education, health, etc.) have been declining.


One has to understand the speeches of the World Bank representatives along these lines, as they show the way the economy has changed its orientation and aims in the past decades. Robert Zoellick starts his 2010 speech with the claim that the Third World does not exist anymore. In the new economic world there is only a globalised multipolar economy, and development is about pragmatism, recognising how markets and business opportunities change etc. The future of development is not about old concepts of aid but about investment. So what was once financial aid to developing countries (the 0.7% mentioned above) is now “investment looking for good returns with an aim to revolutionise financial flows to those countries”.[7]


Quite a few authors, Samir Amin among them, look back to the NAM as a possible way of “de-linking” (to de-link means to pursue one’s own policy) from the current form of globalisation, of finding another pattern of globalisation, which, as he emphasises, does not mean reverting to the old pre-colonial or colonial state but bringing new patterns of modernity to Third World countries. The question is: What kind of modernity?. He is basically advocating the kind of political and economic → solidarity that once existed within the NAM but in a different form of internationalism. And rather than abstract economic goals – such as profit-maximisation – the focus of economic activity should be on improving life and reducing emissions (see the Tricontinental Institute Report[8]).


The agenda of the NAM and the Third World in the 1960s and 1970s was to claim another history, a different modernity and economic development through anti-colonial and anti-imperialist revolutions, cooperation and solidarity. This represented a core of the non-aligned politics. Today the predictions about the future are not so optimistic, and global inequality continues to rise, despite the strong growth of the less developed economies.


What is needed is a new kind of political consciousness, and it is necessary to include environmental issues into these new politics. → Ecological crises, the results of economic growth and climate change, are among of the greatest concerns today. Capitalism prevents any kind of meaningful ecological action simply because it is not profitable. It also seems we have not learned anything from the past ecological disasters: Bhopal in 1984, Chernobyl in 1985, the Exxon Valdez (Alaska) in 1989, British Petroleum (Gulf of Mexico) in 2010, Fukushima in 2011, and so on. Not to mention how the poorer nations have always been affected by waste, pollution, destruction, resource depletion, and export-oriented crops (such as palm trees in Indonesia). A very recent Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services[9] reports that humans are driving up to one million plants and animal species to extinction, which is tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate across the past ten million years.


So, the current causes and effects of climate change pose for us another challenge, and raise not only the question of rising inequalities and migration, but also, as Dipesh Chakrabarty points out – in his text “The Climate of History”[10] – a question about the finitude of humanity, of a future without us.

[1] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 239.

[2] Achille Mbembe, “The age of humanism is ending”, Mail & Guardian (22 December 2016).

[3] Pramod K. Nayar, Posthumanism (Cambridge: Polity, 2014), 8.

[4] “Globalisation and Its Alternative: An Interview with Samir Amin”, Tricontinental Institute for Social Research: Political Notebook, no. 1 (29 October 2018).

[5] See for example World Economic Survey, 1975: Fluctuations and Development in the World Economy (New York: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 1976).

[6] Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New York, London: The New Press, 2007), 90.

[7] Robert Zoellick, “Old concept of ‘Third World’” outdatedThe World Bank (14 April 2010).

[8]We Are the Shadow-Ghosts, Creeping Back as the Camp Fires Burn LowThe Tricontinental, The Twentieth Newsletter (16 May 2019).

[9] The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

[10] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses”, Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, The University of Chicago (Winter 2009).