Third World means nothing now

By Razib Khan | August 17, 2010 2:43 am

I recently had an exchange on twitter about the term “Third World” (starting from a tweet pointing to the idea of “Third World America”). Here’s Wikipedia on the origins of the term:

The term ‘Third World’ arose during the Cold War to define countries that remained non-aligned or not moving at all with either capitalism and NATO (which along with its allies represented the First World) or communism and the Soviet Union (which along with its allies represented the Second World). This definition provided a way of broadly categorizing the nations of the Earth into three groups based on social, political, and economic divisions.

Although the term continues to be used colloquially to describe the poorest countries in the world, this usage is widely discouraged since the term no longer holds any verifiable meaning after the fall of the Soviet Union deprecated the terms First World and Second World. A term increasingly being used to replace “Third World” is “Majority World”, which is gaining popularity in the global south. The term was introduced in the early nineties by the Bangladeshi photographer and activist, Shahidul Alam.

I don’t think the term “Third World” has much utility, but I think it’s not useful to replace it with another dichotomous categorization which simply falls into the trap of a human cognitive bias. The bias seems universal, and doesn’t brook ideology. Racial nationalists and multiculturalist liberals both accept the dichotomy between “people of color” and whites. I believe most white liberals today would agree with the framework that white nationalist Lothrop Stoddard outlined in The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy; they would simply invert the moral valence, looking positively upon developments which Stoddard viewed with concern. Many racial minorities in the West also buy into the white vs. non-white dichotomy for purposes of cooperation between different groups. Though it has tactical utility in white majority societies it’s frankly ignorant to presume that there’s any fundamental solidarity between “people of color.” I assume that dark-skinned South Asians and Africans who have lived in East Asia, or even the Gulf states, can confirm that racism is not necessarily conditional on the existence of white people.*

But there is also the problem that there’s a wide range of economic and social outcomes outside of the developed world. To give you a sense, here’s a chart from Google Data Explorer:

I wanted to show a two-dimensional chart to indicate that issues of development shouldn’t always be viewed in a scalar context. Many Asian nations do not have the political instability or issues with disease that African nations have, but, they’re far closer to the Malthusian limit. So in general Africans are actually relatively well fed, but that’s in part probably due to the high mortality in those regions. NGOs and relative political stability have resulted in a floor of the quality of life in very poor nations like Bangladesh (so that mass starvation is no longer a concern), but that floor is very low indeed. Low enough that South Asia is the world epicenter of nutritionally induced mental retardation in raw numbers.

And then you have nations such as Mexico or Brazil, which suffer from “contrast effect.” Mexico is next to the United States, and so it can not perceive itself as a rich nation. Brazil has long been the “Land of the Future,” and is gifted with a surplus of land, so its relative underperformance next to the USA grates. But on a world wide scale they’re both rather affluent. Mexico is the second-fattest nation after the United States. 1 in 10 Brazilians is obese. Obesity is not positive, but it is an indication that populations have moved above bare subsistence and large swaths now have a surfeit of calories.

Here’s a bar plot of malnutrition prevalence under the age of 5, with color-coding by region:

* Sometimes I feel that in terms of the model of how the universe works, white nationalists and non-white racial activists in the West can agree on the facts. Whites are supernatural creatures, the former simply view them as gods, the latter as demons. But any model which does not include whites is no model at all, for they are the Nephilim of our age. When I talk to people versed in post-colonial theory about history a history without whites does not compute. They say that love and hate are two sides of the same coin.

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  • bioIgnoramus

    “When I talk to people versed in post-colonial theory …. They say that love and hate are two sides of the same coin.” Clearly post-colonial theory doesn’t innoculate one against cliche, then. The wikipedia entry on post-colonial theory makes it sound like run-of-the-mill twentieth century intellectual ordure.

  • http://www.latif.blogspot.com Zachary Latif

    So interesting you say that because just now I received the argument that Pakistan’s actions in Bangladesh were not “Colonial” since only the Western powers can be colonial. To provide the context Japan had apologised to Korea and I questioned whether we should apologise to Bangladesh; the amount of negative responses I received were shocking and slightly disgusting.

    Humanitarianism demands that wrongs be redressed regardless of who is the perpetrator and who is the victim. To not even have a sensible discussion about the need for an apology is an indictment.

    Its interesting considering that 11 out of the 13 senior civil posts of that time were occupied by Urdu speakers. In fact there is a statistic there were more Bengali speakers in senior positions during the British era rather than the Pakistani one.

    There is the “Ethnic” complex whereby ethnics world over seem to constantly indulge in victimisation. Gross generalisation I know but its really tiresome; the reason the West triumphs (or triumphed) was that it organised a unified yet diverse civil society.

    I am involved in ethnic organisations in London; it is ridiculous how difficult it is proving to organising them. It’s a dichotomy the condemnation of White people but need for approval from them is a subliminal and strong desire.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    To provide the context Japan had apologised to Korea and I questioned whether we should apologise to Bangladesh; the amount of negative responses I received were shocking and slightly disgusting.

    why would they need to though? i know people whose family were shot in the head by pakistani security forces for ideological reasons, and even those people don’t seem particularly bitter at you lot. you know my mom was shot in random fire by mistake right? she has no issue with having pakistani friends (though she does take umbrage when american pakistanis start lecturing her about how bengalis should have learned urdu).

    Humanitarianism demands that wrongs be redressed regardless of who is the perpetrator and who is the victim. To not even have a sensible discussion about the need for an apology is an indictment.

    the european white race is christ-like, it has taken upon itself the sins of all mankind so that colored people can rape, murder, and torture each other without censure :-) we coloreds are the noble savages in rousseau’s edenic garden, without the ability to make moral judgments, and so lacking in all moral responsibility.

    There is the “Ethnic” complex whereby ethnics world over seem to constantly indulge in victimisation. Gross generalisation I know but its really tiresome; the reason the West triumphs (or triumphed) was that it organised a unified yet diverse civil society.

    european societies in the 19th century weren’t wasting their time defining terms like “majority society” because “third world” was offensive :-) sorry, had to dig.

  • John Emerson

    Terms of this type are usually tied to some sort of political strategy. For example, in Dean’s “Nature of the non-western world” (1957), most of Latin America is non-western, but Japan is western. She really meant “undeveloped world”, I suppose. The book was keyed on Truman-Eisenhower foreign policy.

    Likewise, the recent North-South debate counted Australian and NZ as North.

    As I remember, for Mao the first world was the great powers (USSR / USA), the second was their developed allies, and the third was the same old third world everyone was talking about.

    In all cases what you’re really talking about the political message / strategy / movement, and picking at the terminology is a distraction. (The football Big Ten now has twelve members, up from eleven.)

  • Chuck

    “the european white race is christ-like, it has taken upon itself the sins of all mankind so that colored people can rape, murder, and torture each other without censure”

    Like Marxism 1.0, Cultural Marxism employs the Christian eschatological-Manichean mode of thinking. Cultural Marxism just completely inverts European identity. Instead of having a bunch of noble European people going out to spread the righteous word of some god to primitives and save them from their backwardness, you have a bunch of post-European people bringing in non-European people to save the primitives from their ignoble Europeanness — in the name of liberal moral-theology.

    That’s not to say these ways of thinking are idiosyncratic to Europeans — they clearly aren’t. But there does seem to be some cultural connection.

  • Latifundiário

    The Brazilian historical ruling class is the most active, the fiercest and the most homogeneous ethno-national group in the New World. Never in history so few made so lot ! The biggest contiguous territory, the biggest number of slaves, the biggest number of servants and now, just in time, even the poor Brazilians are finally improving their deserved lot and Brazil is becoming a mass market society and a fully established democracy. The USA Wasps have already lost their hegemony what is a sign of the current crisis. When we say that Brazil is the country of the future we mean to say that Brazil is still growing, Brazil is pure ascension graphic and there’s a lot of space to grow stronger in all dimensions. Brazil is one of the few countries that can dream to be the world number one, good news because there’s plenty of space in Brazil to grow stronger decade after decade, century after century respecting the neighbors and the others because Brazil has not reached its Zenith when other countries are rapidly decaying ! Or you are a country of the future or you are a country of the past ! And as I wrote in another message, the 21st century is the BRIC age ! Wonderful isn’t it, Brazil is the last frontier of the Western World wanting or not ! Yes we have bananas, blondes and even snow ! Glorious isn’t it !

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan
  • Chris T

    “coloreds are the noble savages in rousseau’s edenic garden, without the ability to make moral judgments, and so lacking in all moral responsibility.”

    Worse, morality is a Western construct with no application outside of the West. Thus Arizona gets equated to China and the Japanese can freely discriminate against anyone who isn’t them.

    America is the most racist country, except for all the others that exist.

  • Brian Too

    Re: “They say that love and hate are two sides of the same coin.”

    No. This is a common mistake. Love, hate and indifference exist as a triad of distinctive emotional states. They are connected by their mutual incompatibility (yes, a paradox).

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Rousseau did not believe in the noble savage.

    Speaking of inversion, in reading Robyn Dawes and the like I’ve found that much of what I previously associated with Freudianism, like the harmfulness of “repression”, was basically the opposite of what he actually taught. Vienna under the Habsburgs was a very different society than 1960s America & France. Psychoanalysis is still bunk though.

  • John Emerson

    Not really a mistake. What people are saying is that hate and love relate to one another (as obsessions) and transform confusedly into one another, and coexist paradoxically, but rarely pass step by step from one to another after passing through indifference.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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