The end of the Third World

By Benjamin Elstobb

I have to confess, whenever I hear some discussion of the ‘Third World’ I can’t help but release a large, inward sigh (or potentially a small outward one, situation and company dependent), as the conversation follows its predictable tropes—who or what constitutes the Third World these days? Etc, etc.

I’ll start by laying my cards on the table. The distinction between First and ‘Third World’ is over, and it has been for some time now. This is to say that: the concept ceases to describe the international system in any kind of meaningful way, and as such is defunct, often posing more questions than it is capable of answering.

The expression itself has its genesis in the 1950s, being first coined by French intellectual Alfred Sauvy, in his ‘Three Worlds’ theory. The purpose of this was to map the post war ideological landscape. The First World was identified as the developed, capitalist west; the Second World consisted of the developing and semi-developed socialist states; and the Third World, the non-aligned, developing world, primarily relating to Asia, Africa and South America. It is worth emphasising the power dynamic here, the First and Second Worlds were in competition for influence over the Third.

If all of this is starting to sound fairly contrived, then you may just be on to something.

With the end of the Cold War, the ‘Second World’ ceased to exist as an ideological entity, its sub units to merging with the ‘Third’ world, leaving the system much like a two-legged milk stool. Nevertheless, there was an attempt to shoehorn this system solely into the context of development. Though as growth began to migrate further east, into the ‘Third World’, this economic dimension no longer made sense either, and only confused things further. Scholars have tried to establish a new dictionary, that better explains the modern world, though the translation into common sense has been, how shall we say, slow.

Regardless, the expression remains in common, albeit increasingly informal, usage. So the question I have been asking myself is, why? The need for humans to categorise as a means of simplification is well documented, but why in terms that are so obviously complicated? That people need to ask, for example, whether India, China or Russia are ‘Third World’ or not, displays how little utility this concept has in the first place; yet something about it remains irresistible.  It occurs to me, perhaps, that the idea of a ‘Third World’ has some value in itself, greater than its ability to describe anything tangible

Back in early January, during a bipartisan meeting with lawmakers, President Trump was alleged to have made loose reference to a number of ‘shithole countries’. Quite whether this was said or not remains to be seen, though I was not intrigued by the claim itself, so much as the general response to its verisimilitude. Typically, there was outrage for some, whilst for others it was greeted with a sort of ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’. Once again, the Donald appeared to be exercising his skill, in articulating that which was on everyone’s mind, but dare not be said.

This is interesting to me in a number of ways. Firstly, that the idea of a ‘Third World’ is ingrained on some level beyond its direct reference. Secondly, to note the particular ease with which such an idea gravitates between a categorisation and a pejorative. Thirdly, (and perhaps most importantly) the degree to which this ‘Third World’ exists in the collective imagination across the political spectrum.

Clearly, whether on the left or right, the ‘Third World’ is an important concept, even if only as a point of conflict upon which to diverge, to contrast their different ideas on the international. The left have traditionally seen themselves as its champion and protector; some of those on the right, in what might be termed pragmatism, are both the benefactors of and protectors from this prospective Third World. Yet a thick streak of patronage runs through both camps, which is clear in their response to it.

For example, if any notion of mutual respect existed, between the developing world and the left, it was to be shattered with the complete indignation shown by the left wing media circuit, after Trump’s attempt at describing the United States as ‘like a third world country’. Rather than contesting the use of a vague, out of date concept, or worse yet insulting their comrades overseas, offence was instead taken at being compared to them. If the United States was becoming like the Third World, they sneered, then it was only as a result of his policies. Of course, trading blows in such terms, however unpleasant, is not new; though it is quite out of sync with the enlightened language those same institutions usually favour.

It seems to me that the Third World will continue to exist in the hearts and minds of those who find some utility in its existence, whether it exists in reality or not. Quite where the Third World is located is harder to define, its borders nebulous as the concept itself. China, once the sick man of Asia, is now no longer; far from it. Likewise, for India, Brazil, Taiwan, South Korea; the African states, and many of the hurdles they face, are far more diverse than that of the 1980s ‘live aid’ conception that still prevails to this day. The world is changing, or, past tense, has changed. It remains fascinating to me, that language is amongst both the first and last things to change, or be affected by change. In each instance there is always a reason why; we ought to think about that.

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