Third World or Global South or Not-White-People, Research Time, 03/02/2016

When I’d talk to libertarian folks on the internet, they had a tendency to discuss left-leaning people as if we all had total ideological uniformity. Specifically, the most obnoxiously argumentative would parrot all the accusations and insults that Friedrich Hayek wrote about “leftists” in The Road to Serfdom.

That conception of “leftists” basically confuses all forms of left-wing politics with Stalinist totalitarianism while remaining completely blind to totalitarianism’s racializing processes. More fundamentally, this kind of thinking takes there to be universal uniformity, when there’s really a huge amount of diversity, divergence, and conflict.

I mention this because, when the Utopias manuscript is finally ready to go, this stereotyping habit will regularly come in for mockery. Its misunderstanding of left-wing politics is utterly ridiculous, because the left is famous for its factionalism.

Another example of bitter divisions in real-life political
parties over what amount to minor differences: the
intense contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary
Clinton to win the Democratic Presidential nomination.
The real long-running stereotype about left-wing politics is that we’ll never be able to win state office in a democracy because we keep splitting into acrimonious groups over minor differences.

A joke in Canada is that, at the federal level, there’s a Marxist-Leninist Party and a Communist Party. They’re practically the same ideology, and earn a total of maybe 70 votes throughout the whole country every election, between them. But yes, there was a doctrinal split and they separated their powers.

Canada’s New Democratic Party has had its share of divisions that seriously mess with party unity.* The biggest split in its history was in the early 1970s, when some members organized to issue a socialist manifesto for the party.

* I actually think that’s good for all political parties, because conflict and disagreement over guiding ideals gets party members more involved in actual politics instead of just winning votes for the sake of winning votes. 

This hardcore socialist faction seriously alienated the NDP mainstream, who were content with a strongly unionist social democratic program. These uncompromising socialists crippled the party for about a decade, embroiling members in a fight over how socialist the party would become. 

The lesson this post takes from that is that you should never assume the unity of a real movement because of your conception of what that movement must be.

Antonio Negri points to something similar in the 20th century’s conception of the Third World. In the latter decades of the Cold War, an influential notion in radical political theory was the revolutionary power of the Third World.

Poverty and subordination relative to a global system
of economics doesn't determine the entire potential of
a culture. And if you think it does, you're stupid.
These countries were defined by their horrifying poverty, and their subordinate position relative to the two global superpowers. So the Third World countries were, in the eyes of European university-based political theorists, the global proletariat who would push the First World (the capitalist West) to revolution.

This is a notion in international relations that sounds beautiful and elegant when stated in abstract, theoretical terms. Its real-world truth? Bogus.

Negri has a very simple, straightforward answer why. Really, he has two of them. I’m going to discuss the easiest answer first, the one that you’re probably thinking of right now.

Yes, you can grant the theorists of the Third World as proletariat that these large swaths of human civilization and society were desperately poor. And yes, you can grant that their countries are in a subordinate position to the United States, Europe, and other similarly wealthy states. 

But extrapolating from these broad facts that only apply at a very general global level of analysis to conclusions about the nature and destiny of all their societies is ridiculous. 

There are enormous and genuinely meaningful differences between the cultures (and the left-wing political movements) of Cambodia, India, Malawi, and Uruguay. Just to pick some diverse examples. Collapsing them all into a single, unified, global proletariat is ignorant at best and condescendingly racist at worst.

Negri himself makes a similar, but more subtle point: the Third World (proletariat) v First World (bourgeoisie) image erases the agency of working people in the industrialized West itself. It makes exploited, underemployed, and poor people in the USA and Europe just as worthy of overthrow as people like Henry Ford and Travis Kalanick.

An idea that you have because the framework of your picture of the world is usually too simple to be true or useful at all.

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