The Dangerous Myth of “The Third World,” Research Time, 09/02/2016

Okay, so after one inadequate start and another delay, I’m finally going to follow up last Thursday’s post. It probably won’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. But this blog is about working through ideas and sharing the process with readers. As well as just telling the internet who I am, how I think, and what I do.

For decades, literally decades, the world was divided up in a particular way for people, into three worlds. Sorry, Worlds. It all had to do with the polarization of global politics in the Cold War. 

There was the First World, the world of capitalist industrial economies: North America, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Then there was the Second World, the world of communist, state-managed industrial economies: the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Some international poverty porn from The Daily Mail.
Everybody else just got one world, the Third World. The general perception (in Western culture at least) was that this was an enormous zone of mass poverty. This image has survived in the modern label of the Global South. 

But there was also a deep racialization and colonial condescension to the term, Third World. Have a look at this video of a BBC report on the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. It dehumanizes – describing people in terms better suited to animals, mixing the din of conversation in the local language to sound like nonsense chatter, featuring government officials but telling no stories of individual victims themselves. 

This is just one example of an attitude that was pervasive in how we learned about and understood the world throughout the Cold War period. All the cultural and economic differences of our enormously diverse world was collapsed into three absolutes: the West, the East, and the poor.

It wasn’t just mainstream political thinking that marginalized and erased the diversity of the “Third World” during the Cold War. Even the front lines of radical political theory gave in to the same impulse.

Antonio Negri talks about an idea in vogue during the 1970s and 80s in radical marxist political academic circles.* It was the idea of the Third World itself as a global proletariat. They were the oppressed masses, labouring in resource industries and sweatshops to build the wealth of the bourgeois First World.

* Everything you may think about how ridiculous this group of people is, yes, is true. Radical marxists who’ve been happily sitting in ivory towers for so long that they don’t even know how to do political activism or really speak in language other than a political-economic analysis from the 1870s.

The idea isn’t totally out to lunch. Poorer regions of the world really do have lower average incomes, and some really serious poverty. But the idea ignores not only the real cultural, linguistic, political and historical diversity of all these countries. It ignores the real nature of economic development.

I discovered the work of Kojo Laing about four years ago.
He's a brilliant example of someone who writes about life
in Africa with its social gulfs. But he also depicts the
singular and beautiful nature of individual life itself.
A country in the so-called “Third World” doesn’t consist entirely of pathetically poor people, as that BBC News clip might have implied. 

A favela exists a short walk away from a gated community of mini-mansions, hundreds may work in a mine in the rural exurbs of a city, and thousands more may work in factories. Many thousands more may work in companies offering long-distance customer service or other IT business. All of this exists side by side, and its arrangement changes over time

What’s more, such a theory also ignores the economic and cultural diversity within the First World. It’s utterly perverse to declare a marginalized black neighbourhood in Chicago which suffers from generations of endemic poverty to be bourgeois because it’s in the United States. That’s just one example: I could talk about homeless drug addicts, indigenous reserves whose economies are non-existent, or isolated rural towns. 

The radical academics remind me of the socialist revolutionaries in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Ellison’s white radicals have no interest in the real needs and nature of black culture and society, but only want to use them as powder kegs for a revolution conceived in purely abstract thought and reasoning. So it goes with the wide community of so-called radical professors. 

Why is this relevant to my research for a book about humanity’s utopian impulse? Because the image of utopia is the total unity of humanity in all its diversity. That means building solidarity across cultures that overcomes historical racialization. 

It’s the kind of solidarity that the radical academics thought the theory of the Third World Proletariat was all about. But it has to be a social movement built through real connections among real people across the world. Person by person, link by link.

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